>As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a student edition of a couple of related medieval texts that are eventually going to be part of a larger anthology. And I’ve had a few epiphanies because of this work, which I wrote about here.
And now I’ve had another one, related to those earlier ones. And it’s also inspired by two other incidentally related things: first, Carrie Beneš’s essay in the Medieval Academy newsletter on manuscripts in undergraduate classroom, and second, Michelle Warren’s article “Translation” (in Oxford UP’s Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm). The first can be found here on p. 10 of the newsletter. The latter is print only, but the part that I was intrigued most by is the final section of the article (pp. 65-6) where she argues that the Chaucer classroom would benefit from a pedagogy informed by translation theory because, as she argues, “The encounter with the medieval text is a multilingual encounter, even when one appears to be reading ‘English’ texts in ‘English’ in an ‘English’ classroom” (p. 66).
Anyway, all of these texts — the one I’m editing and the two essays I just mentioned — have inspired me to follow through on an idea I’d been toying with for many of my courses, and that is: creating a substantial assignment for each course where students have to create an edition of a text for a modern student reader, complete with introduction, glosses and explanatory notes, and a bibliography for further reading. In some classes I may even start with a digitally available manuscript and teach them to read some forms of medieval script, or at least expect them to compare the manuscript to a scholarly edition and write about what they see and find.
This makes total sense for my Old English and Middle English courses, which are courses on the language, and since the transmission of those languages to us is entirely textual, teaching and learning about textual editing is very much a potentially obvious part of the course content.
But it’s not as obvious in the literature classroom. I’m not talking about returning to some 19th century style pedagogy and making the English literature classroom a form of the old Classical classroom, where it’s all philology and grammar all the time, or about constructing quasi-genealogical trees of sources and manuscript transmission. I only want to make this a small part of all that the students learns, so that that they’re at least aware of the work that goes into bringing these texts to them, and, more important, aware of the ways in which the text is mediation — even if it’s “in the original language.” I like thinking and talking about readers, too, and making students aware that a medieval reader’s experience of a book as a physical object, and a text as an abstract idea might be very different from ours even before you get to issue of cultural differences.
This is for me, in fact, part of a turn towards teaching reading, and of thinking of myself as a teacher of reading (the process) rather than or more than a teacher of literature (a thing). Apparently I’m in good company, too, since even Spivak is talking about teaching reading (as Dan Remein says here, in the third paragraph)! That “concern troll” I mentioned in passing a while back made the old chestnut of a charge that I must teach because I cannot “do,” because I’m not working on my own great works of literature (for all he knows, I could be, but never mind that). But of course, I don’t teach creative writing; I teach students how to read and write about literature, and that I most certainly do — successfully, too, if you measure it by academic publishing.
But what does that have to do with textual editing? Well, as I said in the earlier post about the epiphanies I’m having from my own editing project, I’m finding the editing process allows for a more intimate relationship with the text, not merely a familiar one. I think in edition to translation assignments, close reading assignments, and so forth, it will help the student engage deeply with the text, at least for a passage or a section, and hopefully they’ll realize how that engagement pays off. Such an exercise, I hope, will make them a different kind of reader, a more intense reader and perhaps an even more appreciative one. And I hope, too, that they’ll realize that student editions with glosses and notes and introductions, etc., don’t just grow on trees, nor are they all alike. And finally, in my medieval literature and language classrooms, they’ll have to engage in a kind of cross-cultural communication, a translation of sorts, that’s part medieval, part contemporary. Instead of allowing them simply to read the text as modern readers, or asking the impossible task of reading as a medieval person, I’ll be asking them to meet the text somewhere in the middle, where they have to communicate with the past and then communicate that past to the potential readers of their edition (and I may even have them do peer-evaluation of each others’ editions to make that even more clear).
And for my non-medieval classes — the undergraduate intro to literature, the graduate intro to research — I think I can still do variations on this, because even non-glossed, non-translated texts of recent vintage are edited, introduced, and mediated when they’re issued in classroom editions. We have a pretty darn good rare books library here with all sorts of cool, unpublished literary stuff, as well as materials from important cultural contexts for 19th and 20th century literature, and over the summer I could work with the director of the center to create some assignments for both of those classes, which I’ll be teaching next year. She’s really eager to get more students in there, to be able to say that the collection is indeed a valuable resource for students, so it would be good for her, too.
I’ve been trying to find a pedagogical continuity between all of my classes — a teaching philosophy, one might say (a concept and document that many bloggers on the job market and those of us doing renewal and tenure dossiers have been thinking and talking about in recent months) — and I think this kind of tangible close engagement with the text could be it. Then the next time I say I insist that students read or engage with the text closely, I’ll really mean it in a sense beyond “close reading” and “critical thinking” — phrases that can and do have meaning but that can also be so thrown around in meaningless ways. But by requiring students to produce an edition of, for example, one of Chaucer’s short poems, or “Wulf and Eadwacer,” or a late medieval lyric, or Etheridge Knight poem, or of contextual reading for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or whatever (depending on the class), perhaps I’ll get them closer to having the intimate relationship with at least one text, and to being more aware of the ways they receive texts, in addition to being closer readers of those texts.