Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prof, bored with course, needs new ideas

OK all you smart medievalists and medieval lit teaching early modernists out there, I need your advice.

For five out of the last six academic years, I've taught our medieval-literature-excluding-Chaucer class, which is one of those monstrous 800 years in 16 weeks kind of courses. It's like I'm the only person in the department who has to teach a real survey course, and frankly, I'm not fond of survey courses. After doing this five times I can see very clearly just how superficial our discussion of *everything* is. And there are certain texts I feel like I have to do every time, which means that even though they're texts I like very much and find something new in every time (e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I'm still getting bored with them or with the discussions and papers they provoke. And a bored teacher is a bad teacher. One semester after winning that Awesomest Prof Ever award and I'm starting to look more like Lamest. Prof. Ever.

So I talked with Milton about this, as he's the chair of the undergrad lit curriculum committee. We discussed the possibility of splitting the class into two -- one Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (and Latin!), and one Anglo-Norman and Middle English (and Latin!) -- or about just alternating the subject each time I taught it. See, in our curriculum, students don't have a lot of historical period requirements -- they simply have to take at least one pre-1800 lit class and one post-1800 lit class in the British lit offerings -- so it's not like I'd be gypping them on their way to their early modern class if they got the ASNaC version instead of the late medieval version. But yeah, I would be exposing them to less of the broader medieval period, of course. (An aside: I've become more and more convinced over time that specific content knowledge is less important than the broader intellectual experiences and skills learned in a variety of classes, across the curriculum and across the major. But that's a post for another day.) So Bullock suggested that in changing the course description (if I keep it a single course), I should also make it repeatable if the content is different, which will be especially important for undergrads and grad students who want to go on to the Ph.D. and specialize in medieval literature -- it will actually give them *more* instruction in the field. I'm now also thinking that I want to keep the option of doing the whole 800-year shebang so that if I want to do a thematic course across the period, I can. Plus, we all know how porous that 1066 boundary is. Finally, I want to be able to throw a bit of Chaucer in there if I want. This "excluding Chaucer" business is nutty, especially since it's not like students are definitely going to take the Chaucer class for their single author requirement, since they have a range of choices.

So here's what I'm thinking of doing. I'll keep it one course, but I'll change the title to something like "Topics in Medieval Literature" (or maybe just "Medieval Literature") and write a general catalog description that makes clear that some offerings might be ASNaC oriented, some might be about the late medieval period, and some might be thematically focused, and students may repeat the course when the content changes. (We have departmental course descriptions that give a better sense of the specific course and its expectations.) And then, starting with the next time I teach the class, I'll start developing different variations.

Now, here's where you come in. First of all, what do you think of this general plan? Am I missing any possible significant repercussions? I don't think enrollment will be an issue, since most of our students pick courses by a) what's required (in this case, that means pre-1800 lit), b) what fits their schedule, c) where the class is located, and d) who is teaching the course, so no matter what specific topic or area I'm doing in a given semester, I'm likely to get more or less the same students. I think. But is there anything else I'm not taking into account?

Second, if you were to do an ASNaC course, what Norse and Celtic literature would you assign? And are there good secondary works (guides, companions, or histories) that you have found useful for yourself or your students? One of the things, ideally, that I'd like to do in each of these revamped courses is not only give students more experience with the primary texts of a given period or genre, but also make some room for both historical contexts and the literary scholarship of the field. I'm especially ill-informed on the Norse and Celtic side of the ASNaC trinity.

Suggestions welcome!


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

We've done something very similar at my shop. For awhile, the Anglo-Saxonist and I alternated teaching the general medieval course, each of us with her own emphasis: mine tended to be Arthurian, hers ON-Celtic. I spun off a separate Arthurian course eventually, and that and Chaucer are now "mine" while MedLit remains an ON-Celtic preserve, but if I got to teach it that would probably change. I think it's good to have a lot of variation in individual times the course is taught, and to go more deeply into a period or genre rather than giving a rapid "if this is Tuesday, it must be the mystics" sort of survey. Does your department have a handbook, separate from the official catalog, where you could list possible reading lists in more detail? Or could you just post old syllabi outside your office? I'm thinking that would help demonstrate to students that there's a big range of medieval lit you're choosing from. As to texts, I'm going to be less help there, but I know my colleague always does at least one saga plus whatever Celtic stuff is in the Longman medieval anthology. (She is, in general, happy to use anthologies.) I hope this helps and isn't too long-winded---e-mail me if you want more.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

A caveat - I'm pretty much exclusively post-1066 in my literature knowledge (though now I have more time on my hands, I may be changing that). But I'd be inclined to go with two or three different course-plans, distinguished not by time period or language base but theme.

You've got the obvious ones, like war/honour/chivalry and how that changes over time (Beowulf/Chretien de Troyes/alliterative Morte Arthur etc) or romance and courtly love (Chretien (again!), Gawain's resistance to it, the Knight's Tale and the Miller's inversion of it, even T&C if you had months in which to get them to read it).

But there's also less obvious themes like literary depictions of the life of non-nobles (trickier, given mostly it's non-existent, or they exist just to be raped in passing), which could allow you to incorporate some less literary texts for comparison, or maybe go very late mediaeval and read the Paston letters.

Or you could even focus on one or two of the deadly sins (the mediaeval ones, in which number 7 includes both gluttony and misuse of words) and explore, say, different attitudes to sexual sin, to pride, to the proper uses of speech (Manciple's Tale, Second Nun's Tale, Inferno, Book of Vices and Virtues and other penitential handbooks - even the Bayeux Tapestry as an example of the perceived consequences of forswearing).

Or do a gender focus and look at different constructions of masculinity (such as how Abelard copes with getting his bits cut off, or Gawain when Lancelot refuses to fight him, or the equally horrified attitudes of Edward II's chroniclers to the possibility of sodomy and to his preference for digging ditches rather than fighting the Scots) and its relationship to power (very manly Theseus laying civilised limits to the manly excesses of the protagonists in the Knight's Tale and thereby confirming his alpha-male position).

I think, for me, the attraction of organising it like this would be the fact that, even if you did end up having some texts in common from one year to the next, you'd end up looking at them from a very different perspective, and probably seeing things in them you hadn't seen before. And as a student, I think it's often easier to approach a new text in a new, unfamiliar era if you know you've already got a general handle on the theme you're looking for in it. It's easier to make connections, assess differences, and observe changing cultural expectations that way.

... Curses, now I want to design a course like this.

Anonymous said...

I've gone this route with our med-ren survey, since the early modernist refuses to teach it (sigh). I retitled it "Scary Monsters and Coy Mistresses," and I pursue a different theme each time I teach it. That makes a big difference in my mental health.

Speaking of which, I'm about to teach the basic Chaucer class for the zillionth time, and I could use some suggestions for jazzing that up. Keep in mind I'm not a Chaucerian. I'd love to do a postmodern Chaucer schtick, but I don't have the time to cook up a kickass syllabus by January.

Bardiac said...

We've moved from a survey-based lower level curriculum to using theme-based courses, and mostly they seem to work pretty well. Our committee put some basic rules in place (at the lower level, the course has to span two distinct time periods, for example), which seem to cause some issues. But there's still a fair bit of freedom. And it's a lot better than trying to teach everything for 900 years.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, it seems everyone is telling me to go with themes across the periods. Right then, I will do that...sometimes. (I've got my own themes, too, including the usual suspects: "Monsters," "The Natural World," "Heroes," and "Self and Other." But I still really want to put an ASNaC course and a late medieval course in the mix, because I'm all about the historicizin' and the localizin', and anyway, ASNaC/"Insular" culture is itself a kind of theme. I love what little chance I get to show students how cosmopolitan and traveled Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Celts were, and how multi-cultural a contact zone England in the period was. It kind of blows their minds. (Less so in the later period -- except for Margery Kempe. Her beer brewing and pilgrimage-taking and chaste-marriage-insisting self blows their minds.)

So, suggestions for Norse and Celtic texts and secondary materials still welcome!!!

Anonymous said...

Depending on how things are structured where you teach, "Topics in:" can bring a handful of traps with it. (I taught Topics in: Web Design). The class may transfer poorly - for students who transfer. There can also be snags in the State (or other) bureaucracy(s) in getting those courses to count as something specific, rather than as a general area elective.

As for re-taking the same course: Who decides? What are the repercussions of requiring every re-taker to get your signature? Lots of students in your shiny new office? Low enrollment? What if students' advisers, sign them in when they shouldn't?

I agree with your aside that "specific content knowledge is less important than the broader intellectual experiences and skills." (Coming from an art teacher, right?) So, I like the idea of rotating courses that have different course numbers, each of which cover smaller time periods. Then, if you throw in some theme-based courses (nice for attracting students who wouldn't otherwise be interested), just make sure they don't have too much overlap with any one period course.

As for what to assign? Um. I like things with a lot of pictures.

Dr. Virago said...

meteechart -- I doubt transfer would be a problem, since this is a senior level class in the major, but I could always stick to the generic "medieval literature." As for the possibility of signature required -- hm, hadn't thought of that. But the advisors concerned would be my colleagues, so I'd trust them to sign in students. I'll ask the people who know. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

medieval woman said...

I actually think this is a great idea - we're doing the *exact* same thing with our Medieval Survey - I'm so tired of starting with Caedmon/Beowulf/Wanderer, etc. and ending with Malory. By making it a topics course, I can teach it anyway I want - I try to pick a theme that will translate across as many periods as possible, though.

Bardiac said...

Doh, I just realized: for senior level courses, we tend to do fairly specific topics, focused on a specific area, period, genre, problem, question, or something.

I did Shakespeare's Othello once, for example, and it was a blast!

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

The "Topics in" approach works for me, and keeps me from feeling homocidal when I have to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the bazillionth time: "OK, now, let's consider the color symbolism here. Green, as you know, often represents blah blah blah blah." If I'm doing it in the context of a theme like "War and Violence in Medieval Literature," then I can skip that and go straight to the threatened violence throughout the poem. Hurray! Something different!

Profane said...

The Saga of the Volsungs is, IMHO, the best ASNAC text ounce-for-ounce. I taught it in a 'Gender and History in Medieval Literature' course last spring. Check your e-mail for a syllabus next week and be sure to harass me if I forget.

Anonymous said...

For AS: I would suggest a bunch of the canonical A-S poems, etc (though I'm no longer liking Crossley-Holland as much, inertia is keeping me using him) plus Heaneywulf, even with all its flaws.

For ON, I strongly recommend the Penguin edition of Hrafenkell's Saga (and other stories). It's short, and students really get the feel for saga materials from it, and the debates in class about the characters, social structure, law, violence, etc., are really good. I then go to Egil's Saga (because, really, the attraction of the "first serial-killer / poet" is just too much for students to resist), but I also like the Byock edition of the Volsung Saga. I would teach Njal if I could, but that would use up so much of the semester and I do try to cram in lots of "greatest hits" material into the course, including the Pinsky translation of the Inferno and the poems of the Pearl MS (Boroff is better on SGGK than Tolkien, I think, though he is better on Pearl). But if you're doing just ASNC, then you could do Njal.

There's also Carolyne Larrington's translation of the Poetic Edda (from OUP), which is very good, and for preparation purposes (and to put on the "recommended" list), there's Heather O'Donoghue's Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (Blackwell), which is great.

For Celtic, the Penguin edition of the Mabinogion always seems to go over well (though some of it is clunky).

And then you could get really out there and go beyond standard ASNC and do the Finnish Kalevala (though it is too long; but you could do excerpts), or go German with the Penguin Nibelungenlied. Then you could do the old/new thing and have them watch Wagner's Rhinegold and talk about why Wagner changed the sources the way he did...

I could go on, but I think I should probably not take over your blog.

Anonymous said...

Egil's Saga also has the advantage of describing Egil fighting for Athelstan, so you could tie it in with the Brunanburh poem. If you're looking for themes, you could also do contrasts of the portrayal of women in say Viking sagas and Arthurian literature.

goblinpaladin said...

I realise that I'm a bit late to the parade, but I saw this post when I wasn't near my notes. I am merely a lowly undergraduate, not a teacher. However, I took a very ASNaC-type course (sans Celtic) called "Heroes and Heroines" this semester and an introduction to Old Norse course the previous semester.

The texts we had in the Old English/Norse introductory course are below, split into the themes that were dicussed in the corresponding tutorials:

Introduction/Heroic Age Stuff:
Tacitus, Bede, the AS Chronicle, the Sutton Hoo dig site.

The ways AS folk invented the past &c.:
Widsith, Deor, the Franks Casket.

The Hero and all the ways ASs like to problematise it (Hero and Society, can pagan heroes be useful for Christians, that sort of thing):
Beowulf (for three weeks)! The story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard from Bede, segments of Volsungasaga, The Dream of the Rood, the writings of Alcuin and Wulfstan on these topics.

The Wanderer, The Ruin.

Beowulf again, The Wife's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer.

Vikings/AS attitudes towards:
Life of St Edmund (AS version), Battle of Maldon.

Old Norse:

Conflicting loyalties/ON attitudes to the heroic:
Lay of Atli. (this lecture also covered a lot of generic Norse information)

Cosmology/Order vs Chaos:
Vafthrudnir's Sayings, Gylfaginning.

The course was heavily slanted towards Old English, it must be said. Roughly 9/12 weeks or so were dedicated to Old English texts, because of the way the semester was laid out. I would have preferred a few more weeks on Norse. I would have liked to read Laxdœla saga and Volsunga Saga (for some "Heroines") and maybe looked at some examples of runestones and the like.

The Old Norse course I took the semester earlier had me read these texts in translation:

The Poetic Edda (focusing on the first nine poems and the Lay of Atli), Saga of the Volsungs, Egil's Saga, and Laxdoela Saga.

We translated bits of Skalskaparmal and Islendinga Saga.

Ah. Sorry that was so long. I hope I was helpful.

Anonymous said...

One of the best Old Irish texts to teach in an ASNAC-type course is Tain Bo Cualnge, trans. Kinsella (not the more recent Oxford trans.) Kinsella includes a variety of "pre-tales" (remscela) in order to give the whole thing a better shape. I think it works better than teaching Gantz's Penguin Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Students love the TBC and it's a lot of fun to teach; the comparison/contrast potential with OE literature is also very rewarding. Not a hard text to get up to speed on, even if one is not an OIrish person.