technorati tag: teaching-carnival
So I’ve been thinking about what to do in next semester’s senior-level medieval literature (excluding Chaucer) class. It’s been on my mind a lot this week because book orders are due soon, but also because I finally got around to reading my teaching evaluations from last Spring and I’m not sure what I did then went over well. I’m thinking about getting students to do a research paper next time around, but I’m not sure that will work, either, and I’d love to hear what you all think.
First of all, some background on what I did last year. I did a lot more lecturing last time and emphasized the book as material object and idea — as well as the distance between the modern, edited text and the medieval manuscript — and so what happened is that we didn’t spend a lot of time getting really close to the texts, but instead spent a lot of time thinking about what books and texts and authors are (or are not) then and now, what books do in cultural terms, who gets to produce them, who consumes them, and so forth. Or we’d talk about how texts in a collection read each other. So, for example, I had them read a lot of stuff from the OE Exeter Book (in translation — another reason why I don’t do a lot of close reading in class) and talked about the appropriation of potentially pre-Christian traditional literature for Christian readers, or the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane (especially in the Riddles), and so forth. Or, at the other end of the temporal spectrum, we read a lot more of The Book of Margery Kempe than I usually assign (I made them buy the whole book) and talked about (female) authority, the author, the scribe, and all that good stuff, including whether the ways in which my students thought she lost authority (by behaving in what they saw as crazy ways) actually gave her authority in the context of saints lives (we read some of those, too) — which I blogged about here.
Anyway, I think my whole tactic over the semester is what resulted in my most mix-bag bunch of evals ever. I got many of the usual ‘her enthusiasm makes you realize this stuff is really interesting, and she’s always concerned with student learning’ good comments. But I also got two or three students saying I graded too hard and treated them “like graduate students.” So maybe thinking about the book as idea and material object, and talking about manuscripts, and reading a lot of texts in Middle English (including The Morte Darthur, at the end of the semester! OK, big mistake!) was too much for my students. At the same, time, frustratingly, I got one comment that said the class was “too high school,” that I told them what the text meant when “we should have been analyzing it.” OK, so I’m pretty sure that’s a reaction to my lecturing and to my frequent contextualizing and historicizing. I just can’t help it. I’ve gotten really tired of facile readings of medieval texts from a 21st century 20-year-old’s point of view and I’d like to show them that there are other ways to read texts other than the New Critical way! Close reading is important, but when most of your texts are in translation, what’s the point? And actually, for the record, we were analyzing — we just weren’t doing close reading, but I think that’s what that student meant by “analyzing.” I mean, I certainly didn’t summarize or ever, ever say “This text means X.” I did sometimes say things like, “A medieval reader, experienced with this genre, might not find surprising what you just found surprising.” But of course, medieval readers don’t all read alike, do they now?
So, suffice it to say, I’m still experimenting a lot with my methods, and some work with my students (they really, really like my pop culture references and visual aids) and some don’t (Middle English is too much unless we’re in Chaucer, where I have time to teach it to them and they read it all semester). So next time, no Norton edition of the Morte Darthur, even though it’s really, really cool. I’ll bring in photocopies to show them. And now that there’s a modernized spelling edition of Mankind — still, it’s Middle English, just no y’s where you expect i’s and so forth — maybe that won’t make them freak too much and we can actully do some close reading of it (which really pays given its complex use of diction and register for all sorts of symbolic ends).
But here’s the real point of this post. I wonder, is a research paper too much to ask of my students? A lot of them still haven’t learned how to write a paper that’s an argument, so I fear a research paper would be a string of quotes. But I thought maybe I’d assign a very, very short paper or two in the beginning of the semester, emphasizing argument and analysis, then break the research paper into small parts over the rest of the semester, including having them read some sample scholarly articles before they do their own research — and get rid of all tests. And if they’re not doing research papers as undergrads, then the ones who want to go on to graduate school are at a real disadvantage. Plus, many of my students are English-Education students (sadly, they’re the ones most likely to say that my course is too hard, or that it has no use for an adolescent ed. major — which means they’ll produce students like them who’ve never read any old literature in high school and freak out when they get it in college) and I’d like my future students to have had teachers who knew how to do a research paper. Hell, I wrote my first research paper sophomore year in high school, at age 15, when I still had to have my mom drive me to the library! (I can still recall the thesis, actually, so I know it had one.)
But if my students think asking them to think conceptually and read Middle English is treating them like grad students, will they balk at a research paper? Or will they find it a useful skill? Part of me just wants to get them reading how scholars write about medieval literature. But then, a lot of scholarship is too difficult for my students. What do I do about that? And how do I teach them how to do a research paper — from picking a topic to find the criticism to writing the thing itself — and also teach them how to read and think about medieval literature?
Any ideas (including from those of you not medievalists but who teach difficult literature of other eras)?