Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My super-awesome, brand-new early medieval lit course for the fall; or, something to be excited about!

OK, I should be doing research work now—I still haven't been as productive as I'd like to have been this sabbatical—but I'm excited about one of my fall classes and I wanted to tell you all about it, both in terms of its content (which the medievalists should be interested in and can give me feedback on) and in terms of its methods, objectives, and assessments, which just about anyone in literature or the humanities more generally might have something to say about. And can I just say that I'm glad I'm finally looking forward to teaching again? Some of you may remember a post from last semester in which I admitted I was burnt out as burnt out can be. It's amazing what time away plus a revamped course can do to get you excited again!

First of all, let me give you some background on the revamping. Here in the RBU English department, we have one undergraduate course on the books for the broad medieval period (which, btw, is "slashed," or combined with the lower-level MA course). We also have a Chaucer course. I can come up with other courses and offer them as special topics, but our students seem to be allergic to special topics, thinking they won't count for anything, even when they will—even when we say so in the course description. (Problem number one is that they don't always read the course description—the one written for that semester's particular version of the course—and if they read anything, they read the brief, vague catalog description.) Anyway, in previous years I treated the everything-but-Chaucer course as a kind of smorgasbord introduction to the entire medieval period, from the Anglo-Saxon period through the 15th century and even a little into the 16th (if we count the performance history of medieval drama). I used to put up a timeline on the first day to show them that we'd be speeding through more centuries of literature than all of their other English literature courses combined! It was enough to make my head spin, and I'm used to thinking across large swaths of time. In the very beginning, I tried to get some Irish and Welsh literature in there as well as Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin literature, but the one time I did that, the class was an amorphous mess of "If it's Tuesday, this must be The Táin " kind of sampling. Bleh. So after awhile I started whittling down to the texts I most loved to teach or knew best. And for awhile that worked, but I knew that my students and I were both missing out on so much other good stuff, and I was starting to feel my brain atrophy. So, two years ago, with the encouragement of the undergraduate studies chair and the vote of the faculty, I changed the course description in the catalog to say that subsequent semesters would alternate between the earlier and later parts of the 8+ centuries of the medieval period, with some semesters offering thematically arranged topics across the whole period; it also directs students to consult the course description on the department website to find out the current topic. We also made it possible for students to repeat the course for credit if the specific topics are different (this is especially important for any MA students who are interested in the Middle Ages, but may also be true of some undergraduates).

So. Here we are approaching book-ordering and course description-writing time for next fall and I have to make good on my promise! This fall I'll be devoting the class to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (ASNaC) literatures, roughly those written or thought to have their origins before the full conquest of the Normans (for the Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh literatures) or from roughly the same period for the Old Norse literature—basically up to the 11th century for the Anglo-Saxon literature and up to the 12th and 13th centuries for the rest. There will, of course, be a little fudging, but the next time, I'll start with the Norman invasion in England and stick to the British Isles. And then after that, having taught a bigger range of texts, I'll know better what works for the students and what works together, and I'll come up with a thematically arranged class.

Of course, my more historically arranged courses aren't going to be without their themes, and one of the driving themes of this ASNaC course is the interlocking contact of these cultures. The Irish sent monks to England; the Vikings invaded England and Ireland; Wayland the smithy shows up in the both Old English and Old Norse contexts; shape-shifters appear in Norse and Celtic texts; the warrior-poet (or at least the articulate warrior) is a recurring figure across the cultures, and text after text brings the poet and/or the scribe into the narrative; the surviving texts are all written or written down by Christians but often draw on the pagan past even for explicitly Christian subjects; and so on. I know that it's really difficult to show or prove direct influence between the vernacular literatures in these cultures, but I want to create a general impression of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, vibrant—even violent—state of flux for the insular and peninsular cultures of the North Sea in and around the British Isles. And so my syllabus isn't going to be arranged in any neat geographic or chronological way (which would be really hard to do, anyway, given how many questions there are about dates and places of origin for so many of these texts). I don't have it all sorted out yet, but on the first day I'll show images of three material objects—The Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Franks Casket (especially the Wayland/Magi side)—to stage the shared cultures and influences, and also to begin pointing out the blend or juxtaposition of pagan and Christian narratives and themes (well, in the Franks Casket, anyway). The next day I'm thinking of either doing "Widsith," "Deor," and the Eddic "Lay of Volund" (to continue the "Wayland is everywhere!" theme, and also to set up the poet-as-hero idea with the first two), or else jumping into The Táin (after all, the Celts were in Britain first!), and doing "Widsith," "Deor," and "The Lay of Volund" after Beowulf, which I'd do after The Táin (to contrast "epic" heroic tales from two cultures). At any rate, I'm definitely going to intersperse appropriately analogous Eddic poems throughout the reading of Old English and Old Norse texts, and I may assign Hrolf Kraki's Saga right after the Beowulf -"Widsith" sequence, to get all those references to Hrothgar together. Usually I teach Judith after Beowulf, since they are manuscript neighbors, after all, and because I like to teach Judith as a response to Beowulf—especially as a rather critical response to the heroic drinking culture—which complicates the whole "yeah, we're Christians, but we admire our pagan ancestors" idea. But Judith could be fruitfully put off until after Hrolf Kraki. And skipping to the end of my syllabus, I'm going to put the Welsh last just to honor the fact that they were the last to fall to the Normans among the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Well, they'll be sort of last, because on the very last day of reading, I'm going to assign "Pangur Ban," which is an Irish poem (and one of the oldest poetic texts on the syllabus), but which uses a Welsh word ("pangur") in the name of the poem's eponymous cat. And I'll be assigning it in Seamus Heaney's translation in order to reinforce the continued and very present-day vibrancy of this very old body of literature. (I also think it's a great poem to end with right before final exams since it depicts the scholar at work.) But The Mabinogi and Taliesin will get pride of place just before "Pangur Ban," even though the Book of Taliesin and "The Tale of Taliesin" are later in their manuscript forms than the dates I've imposed above. Like I said, there will be fudging.

So that's roughly the content of the course. I've got the list of texts I want to do and some rough idea where they'll go in the syllabus, but I haven't worked out the finer details yet, and in order to do that, first I have to, ahem, *read* some of these texts. I've never read most of the Old Norse material (or only in excerpt or summary form), but thanks to my friends on Facebook, I got a lot of good suggestions for stuff to assign and I'm going to sort through it this summer as I prep the class. And I'm excited to read it, too, because, hey, new stuff! (Well, new to me.) But I'm just as excited about the shape of the rest of the class—its assignments and their conception—as I am about the content. So lemme tell you about that, too, K?

For the undergraduates, there are going to be five graded components: participation, which counts a variety of ways of "participating" (10%); 8 one-page response papers (40% - 5% each); 10 submitted discussion questions (10% - 1% each); a 6-8 page essay in which they analyze at least three different translations of a text (20%); and a final essay-exam (20%). In the past I've taken exams out of my course assignments and replaced them with more writing assignments, but I've decided to put an exam back into the equation in this class for a few reasons. First of all, since one of the overarching themes of the class is the connections between the bodies of literature we're reading (even if those connections are nothing more than thematic), I want assessment that emphasizes seeing and articulating those connections, analogies, and parallels. A final, cumulative exam does that better than discrete papers on individual texts. I'm also going to emphasize making connections in the ongoing short assignments—the response papers and the discussion questions—both of which will also serve to keep students engaged in the material. Between the response papers and the discussion questions, they'll have to have thought deeply about at least 18 different texts assigned in the course (because they won't be able to do a response paper and a discussion question on the same text), which will set them up well for the exam. Still, concentrated focus and sustained analysis of a text is important, too, and that's what the translation analysis paper is about. And the response papers are about close reading, so those assignments are related in their skills, as well. But the other reason why I decided on a final exam rather than a final paper is something Tenured Radical said (though I can't find the exact post now) about giving students different ways to succeed in a class. Some students get neurotic about papers; some get neurotic about exams. I'm hoping that the short and largely informal nature of the response papers will keep the paper-writing neuroses down to a minimum, plus students can write them quickly (like an exam) or fuss over them, if that's their wont. And then the exam will be there for those who do well under pressure.

Meanwhile, the way I've set up preparation for the exam—especially since there's only one and it's cumulative—should help the students feel really invested in it and in the content of the course, as well as prepared for it. I'm really excited about this bit, because it's the first time I've planned something like this. Instead of assigning any new texts to read in the last week, the students and I are going to use that time to collectively write the exam. Like the discussion questions (and to some extent, the response papers), this is planned to help students realize that in many way they make the course what it is and determine what they get out of it; what's more, in both cases, I hope they'll learn by doing, rather than by merely responding. But again, it's also about the content of the course, about making connections. So, on the penultimate day of class, students will be charged with coming to class having reviewed the semester's work (oh, and yes, I'm going to emphasize note-taking in this class) and being prepared to talk about the themes of the course and its texts. (I am partly inspired on this point by Jeffrey Cohen's "Myths of Britain" class and their final review session, which he blogged about here.) And here's where I go crazy: after that class, they'll be charged with coming back on the final day with three potential final exam questions they've written themselves, based on the list of themes we've generated together. And we'll use that last day of class to select and hone at least ten questions. They'll know that the three final exam questions will come from that list of ten which they have helped to write, but I get to choose the final three. Now, I'm going to let them know this—and everything above—from the very beginning of the semester. In many of my classes, I give out the complete packet of assignments on the first day of class, and I intend to do that here, too (and schedule time to talk about each one on subsequent days). And so they'll know from the beginning that they're going to be responsible for helping to create the exam, but also that I reserve the right to do it myself if I think they're slacking or trying to get away with something. And the discussion question assignment will help them learn what really generates essay-length discussion and what doesn't. The pedagogical goal here is to get them actively making connections, cataloging, and sorting ideas as we go and in summary at the end of the semester. That's what a final exam is traditionally supposed to get students to do, but I find my students often regard a final exam itself as an opaque and mysterious thing and don't know how to go about making the broader-stroke connections it asks. If they have a hand in making it themselves, perhaps it will become more transparent to them—and that's a lesson they can take to other classes, too.

That's the undergraduate side of things. The graduate student side is a little different. First of all, I don't expect many graduate students to take the course, but for those who do, they'll have to do the response papers and discussion questions, too, as well as participate, of course. But instead of the short translation analysis and final exam, they'll have a graduate-level research paper in three stages: preliminary abstract/research question; polished abstract and annotated bibliography; and final paper. And I intend to make them meet with me for one group session about how best to go about the research and for individual sessions as they tighten up their research plan. But in keeping with the meta-theme of making connections—as well as accounting for the fact that it's rare that I have graduate students who want to be medievalists (the last two years bringing a plethora of exceptions, but still being the exception)—I'm going to allow them to write on issues of reception and revival if they wish. So if they want to write on Taliesin in The Idylls of the King, or Heaney's "Irishing" of Beowulf, or neo-Norse paganism and American pop culture, or whatever, they can. It might be harder for me to help them do it, but I'll enjoy learning something from their work.

So there you have it: a fall class almost ready to go on February 1st! Can you tell I was procrastinating? So, what do you think?


Anonymous said...

OMG, I want to take this class! I read most of those works in my medieval history courses, and loved them, but we read them more as "here's what we know about the culture and its values" than as literary works. And I love that you're using "The Tain" [sorry, don't know how to do diacriticals here]. It is eye-opening for those who assume that more modern Western gender roles are "natural."

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

This course looks to be beyond terrific. I am so impressed with the amount of thinking you've given to its contours: this has to be one of the best articulated course visions I've seen!

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks, Anon and Jeffrey!

Jeffrey -- I think I thought more about the conception and vision of the class and its objectives because I'm not an expert in the content. The closest I come to being an expert in is in the OE materials, and that's really only as a teacher. So it kind of freed me from the "but they *have* to know *this*" coverage model. We'll see how the experiment goes, and if it goes well, I'm going to try to apply it more to the classes where I do feel the weight of expertise.

Susan said...

I love your exam process. that's all.

lunadraconis said...

As a teacher, a medieval historian AND Welsh, I am fascinated. Taliesin is a good choice as is the Mabinogion but there are also the Red Book of Hergest, the Black Book of Carmarthen (my home town) and the White Book of Rhydderch, whence we get the tales of the Mabinogion (which translation is apparently incorrect!!) There is also Y Gododdin by Aneurin, lesser known internationally, however.

In all honesty despite being a fluent Welsh speaker...I confess to my love of Chaucer!! :)