Monday, December 1, 2008

Changing up Chaucer

This post is in part a follow up to the post before last, in which I lamented my boredom with doing the same-old, same-old in the big medieval class. It is also, in part, for Meg, who asked, in another context, for ideas for new stuff to do in her Chaucer class.

Now a class on Chaucer is hard to change very easily. Your big questions are: Do I try and do a little of everything (Troilus and Criseyde, a dream vision or two, a selection of The Canterbury Tales, maybe even some of the short poetry or a single legend from The Legend of Good Women)? Or do I stick to The Canterbury Tales? (This is your choice unless, that is, you're teaching at a school with separate Canterbury Tales and Troilus-and-everything-else courses. Oh, and I suppose you could just do the Troilus-and-everything-else course, but I can't bring myself not to do the Tales at least in part.) I alternate between those two options, and in the little-bit-of-everything version, I change the Tales or the selections from the other works when I get bored.

But now I've been doing that and I'm bored again. So now I'm futzing with *how* I teach it all -- from the emphases I give the course to the assignments I give. Last year I borrowed and adapted a writing assignment sequence from Jeffrey Cohen that builds skills from comprehension of Middle English (through translation) to analysis of passages, to arguments with other critics. To that I added one of my own favorite assignments, in which I ask students to write a modern imitation of a Chaucerian dream vision (albeit in prose), which is an exercise in genre analysis in disguise. I think I may keep most of that this time around, though I may be getting rid of the dream visions this time around, so no imitation. And in the last go-round, I assigned the passages for translation and analysis, but I may let students pick their own next time, because trying to figure out what's worth talking about in close detail is an analytic and interpretative skill, too.

But the big change I'm thinking about making is kind of wacky. And I'm wondering what you all think. I'm thinking about focusing on transmission and adaptation, from the manuscript to early print editions to later imitations and adaptations of Chaucer's work (and also Chaucer's adaptation of his sources), and so I'm thinking of having the class read Henryson's Testament of Cresseid and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida after we're done with Troilus and Criseyde. And I'm thinking of giving a day over to discussion A Knight's Tale; of using some or all of the BBC's fairly recent adaptations (I have the Wife of Bath episode on VHS); of playing some of Baba Brinkman's hip-hop Chaucer along the way; and of utterly traumatizing students with a bit of Pasolini's Racconti di Canterbury at the end of the semester, if I can get my hands on either a tape or DVD of it. Or maybe instead of Pasolini at the end, we could read one of the 15th century continuations of the tales in the TEAMS edition edited by John Bowers. But I'd also assign critical articles as "adaptations," too, because part of the point of this would be to talk about adaptation as interpretation -- and so, interpretation as adaptation. And in the writing assignments and other discussion we'd be talking about translation as adaptation and interpretation, too.

Out of 16 weeks, this would take away three weeks (six classes) from Chaucer "proper" -- the rest would be blended in and done in excerpt alongside Chaucer "proper." It would mean a lot of reading, but I think it might enrich the discussion of Chaucer's own works immensely, and put them in broad context of reception and interpretation. And that might also help students put themselves and their interpretative activities in context and in a greater conversation, too. I worry, often, that when I teach Chaucer only in his 14th century contexts -- as cool and interesting as that can be -- that students consciously or unconsciously feel justified in filing him away as "classic." Shudder. That's such a deadly word. Although I bring in the present or the very recent past all the time in all my classes, I think maybe a smattering of adaptations from the centuries immediately following Chaucer and our own age would make the point better that "Chaucer" is not confined to the 14th century.

What do you think?

21 comments:

Patti said...

I love the idea--but I have to admit, adaptation and appropriation are kinda my thing, as I do a lot of work with Shakespeare and popular culture.

Karl Steel said...

I love it. Strikes me as a good post-tenure class to teach (in that it will be a hell of a lot of work to prepare). Work in the visual arts too: Blake's version of the pilgrims, for example. Show them at least the opening of Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale.

I think you definitely want the TEAMS 15th-c. continuations, as it'd be a lot of fun to do Pardoner's P&T along with the Tale of Beryn; it'd also be fun to do the conclusions to the Cook's Tale alongside 19th-c. and 20th-c. Bowdlerized Chaucers.

Danny Liss said...

I'm very thankful my Chaucer Prof. spent almost half a semester on the Troilus. It towers over any individual tale, but seems to always get passed over in their favor. It's much easier for a student to pick up the Tales later (either by themselves or through an extension course), but the Troilus can be much more daunting.

I went back and read Henryson's Testament quite a bit later, and really enjoyed it. In retrospect, I wish it had been included in the class as well, but I understand that time is limited.

Have you thought about Parlement of Foules? It's relatively short, shows a different side of Chaucer, and allows you to credit him with inventing Valentine's Day (rightly or not).

Susan said...

Well, it's not my field, but I think it's cool. I've thought of doing a historian's version of this with Shakespeare. . .

Dedalus said...

"Chaucer" is not confined to the 14th century.

Oh my, no, indeed he is not:

Chaucer the Bear, our Borders-exclusive holiday bear designed by Ty, is so soft and cuddly you won't be able to resist taking him home.

Many jokes. Many, many. But I'll let the professionals have the first shot.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Go for it. It sounds so cool. Sometimes my friend the Shakespearian does his T&C at the same time as I do Chaucer's, and we make many references to each other's classes. One of the things I do with "A Knight's Tale" is show it at the end of term and ask students to make a list of all the references/jokes they would not have caught before taking the Chaucer class, to prove they've learned something with real-world applications! (Sometimes it's a little disappointing that they don't think they learned more.) I've been doing a Chaucer and Romance class for awhile, in which we read all the romance-ish CTs, T&C, and some non-Chaucer romance to show what he's responding to, so I think having some not-Chaucer in a Chaucer course is fine.

Ceirseach said...

That sounds thrilling. :) One thing that I'd suggest - which I found thrilling and intriguing when we were assigned the task for King Lear as an undergrad - is askign them to produce an edition of a certain passage. Maybe only 20-50 lines, and really the shorter the better, in a way, because it forces concentration on fine details such as punctuation. Give them an intersting passage, links to facsimiles of the most reliable manuscripts (both the Hengwrt and Ellesmere are available free online, iirc), mention the names of some prominent modern editions and let them at it - just let them know that at least half the mark is for how they justify their decisions as an editor, what they choose to gloss and how, how they describe the process of decision-making in an accompanying essay or what have you.

It's a real eye-opener, suddenly not to have all the answers in front of you. And I think it would tie in very nicely with the idea of reinterpretations and reconsiderations of the works.

Erick said...

Ceirseach's idea would, of course, give you good reason to adopt my textbook (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/titles/english/texted/) which I know you know about, but which I cannot help but promote. I think textual criticism as a part of book history might provide your students useful contexts for thinking about transmission and adaptation. And it provides some facsimiles of Chaucer's "Truth" for good measure!

Ok. And that's a wrap on the shameless self-promotion.

medieval woman said...

I actually think that's a fabulous idea - I'm teaching both and undergrad and a graduate CTs course next semester and, for the graduate class, I'm drawing on a lot of the 15c continuations. But I've been thinking about incorporating Baba Brinkman's stuff and A Knight's Tale into my undergrad class...

Anonymous said...

You could work back as well as forward -- look at chaucer as a receiver of other tales, and read (in translation where necessary) what he's responding to.

If you're going to use a movie, perhaps not A Knight's Tale (which I think is more of a response to Chretien) but What Women Want, a recasting of The Wife of Bath's Tale, in which a jerk is going to lose his job in advertising unless he figures out what women want, and then, when he does, he has the choice whether he cares enough actually to put that into practice.

c . . . said...

*definitely*

in my first two years of undergrad i took a five semester 'great books' style seminar. it was fabulous, but as i later stumbled across more contemporary adaptations and uptakes of those 'classic' texts, they really brought what I had learned in those early classes into focus. I always thought it would be excellent to have gotten some of that interwoven history in the first go-round.

tempestsarekind said...

(bah. For some reason my comment isn't going through when I try to "choose an identity" through LJ. Apologies if this comes up more than once.)

I think it sounds like a good idea--and not just because of the Shakespeare; some of my favorite courses as an undergrad were the more thematic ones, in which we got to look at a wider group of texts under an umbrella of some sort.

Also, when we did Troilus and Criseyde, I always wished that we'd looked at even a bit of the Testament; the professor kept referring to it, and the differences sounded really interesting.

Plus I have recently become rather fond of A Knight's Tale; if I were in the class, I'd be excited to find out what a real medievalist would make of it!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Do it, and blog it! This course would perfectly illustrate the most exciting ways in which Chaucer is being thought about right now (not separating the medieval from medievalism). I think it'd be a lot of work, but a blast for all involved.

Anonymous said...

My first graduate course I took was on T&C, and we did the Henryson and the Shakespeare, and we added the Dryden, too. The Dryden is very silly, but fun! There's a lot to talk about there, too.

Also, I agree with Karl Steel about the Powell and Pressburger CANTERBURY TALE, but I would add that you should make your students watch ALL of it. Because it is amazing. - TJO'D

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. V,
I split the undergrad. Chaucer class into two different classes: one on Troilus (from Benoit to some crazy Scottish letters to Criseyde) and another one I called "Producing the Canterbury Tales". The Troilus class loved reading the back material including Boethius, found Henryson and some of his other Scottish brethren obsessed with the T&C text fabulous. They were shocked but involved with the Shakespeare version. They also loved looking at the Kelmscott illuminations that go with T&C. They got to do a little special collections moment with that one. I also included several of the dream visions.
The "Producing the Canterbury Tales" is going great. We've read all of the Tales, had 4 different sessions in Special Collections to look at facsimiles of Ellesmere and Hengwrt, looked at a slew of black-letter Chaucer editions (including the Caxton's on the BL website), several seventeenth and eigtheenth-century editions. The earliest Skeat. And a couple of fine-press editions (two Kelmscott and a 1929 illustrated one). We are reading the Siege of Thebes, Gamelyn, the Ploughman's Tale, the Cook's Tale and the Tale of Beryn. They are also watching A Knight's Tale, some of the BBC Canterbury Tales, and may have a gander at the Passolini. We started the class with Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog and his elegy to Heath Ledger's character in A Knight's Tale. We've talked about scribes, Adam Pinkhurst, marginalia. They've re-arranged the Canterbury Tales with a new order (and have decided to leave out the Cook's Tale). They think Lydgate's an incredibly earnest fanboy.
I would be happy to talk about it if you are interested.
I hope the family is doing well (especially that lovely dog of yours).

The General

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, suggestions, and ideas! And especially for all seconding the idea of doing adaptations of various sorts. That's where I really needed confirmation that this wasn't crazy or frivolous or taking two much away from Chaucer. So thanks!

And hey General, your two classes sound like an expanded version of what I'm going to attempt in my one class. Great minds think alike, eh? :) Anyway, I think I may go your route eventually and split them up -- and then come to you for your syllabuses! Since I can't quite do something that elaborate by next semester, and I won't teaching Chaucer again for another three years at least, I've got time to put it together.

And I don't know why I didn't mention the Chaucer blog! I use that all the time in the Middle English class (is it ME or not? discuss with reference not only to lexicon, but to syntax and morphology). Duh!

In the meantime, what bits I will do with manuscripts and early print and transmission, I'll do with Erick's book (and Truth) and the digital Hengwrt I have (which will no longer work as a program, alas, but still gives me access to the pictures) and the Caxton on the BL's website -- just a taste, but at least it's something. I always start the class with Adam Scriveyn.

Now...to get my hands on A Canterbury Tale. Are you all sure that's available? I kind of just assume that Dinshaw at NCS was using a copy made from NYU film archives or something. Well...I'll go find out now! (Pasolini, btw, is rare, but our state lending system has it -- yay!)

Oh, and also, to those of you who suggested also reading Chaucer's sources, I'm planning on some of that, too. I'm using the Norton editions of everything, and the T&C has Filostrato in facing pages, so at the very least I'll refer to it in class exercises.

Karl Steel said...

DV, I got the Cant. Tale film from Netflix.

Also, look at the 2008 MLA Profession, which just arrived: check out the article on the animated Loathly Lady opera....

Anonymous said...

Cant. Tale is Criterion Collection no. 341. -- TJO'D

Anonymous said...

PS: I would like to take the General's courses. -- TJO'D

meg said...

I'm days behind the herd as usual, but I just wanted to add another couple of tidbits.

I generally start out with GC Hath a Blog, then Adam Scriveyn, and then Book of the Duchess before heading in to the CT.

As far as reception studies goes, I have a packet of things influenced by the 1st 18 lines of the general prologue, and I have them study the packet and then write their own. I've gotten some stunning work, including the most brilliant poem based on *March of the Penguins* ever written.

My class starts well, but I find myself growing tired of it midway through, and I was hoping to jazz it up with some scholarly debates, but I don't have the time to dig them up (I'm not a Chaucerian).

I usually end with Karen King-Aribisala's *Kicking Tongues*, which places the tales in modern Nigeria. I have gotten a couple of complaints over the about having to learn about Nigerian politics in a Chaucer class, but they can lump it.

Anonymous said...

You might want to visit the McCune Collection's website http://www.McCuneCollection.org/kelmscott_chaucer.html) where they have placed some illustrations from the late 19th Century version of the William Morris' Kelmscott Press of the works of Chaucer. I believe they may place all the illustrations from the Kelmscott Chaucer online within a year and may digitalize the entire book to place online for viewing.

The McCune has a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer which they will bring out for individuals to examine if they are interested.