>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?