>I crammed too much into my Chaucer class this semester. I expected students to do close-reading assignments without modeling enough of that in class. Oh sure, I’d pick out passages to look at closely and then we’d build out to the tale or prologue or the book of Troilus as a whole, but then most of class was spent thinking in big, conceptual modes. Those modes have their place, too, but if, three quarters of the way through the semester you realize from multiple students’ papers that they’re misunderstanding the very basics of given text, then you’ve got a problem.
Case in point: one bright and enthusiastically engaged student this semester wrote that the mourning women at the beginning of the Knight’s Tale were selfish and whiny. I suppose, on some level, all mourning is inherently selfish, but he wasn’t thinking on that level. Instead, he took at face value Theseus’s charge that they must be jealous of his triumph, rather than understanding that that was Theseus’s own selfish misreading of the situation, or seeing that Theseus’s changed understanding after they had pleaded their case exhibits how he learns to be a more appropriately compassionate ruler through showing sympathy for the pain and suffering of his subjects. In class I took all of the above as a given and started a discussion about the troubling nature of that lesson, and the ways in which even Theseus’s compassion remains selfish, how he turns it into an opportunity for his own glory and heroism, how it’s all predicated on war and the suffering of others (and whether or not the text was aware of that or if we were reading against the grain). But my student had missed the basics; he’d misinterpreted the tone of the women begging and crying for compassion, because, of course, it’s presented in formalized, poetic language, and would seem off-puttingly melodramatic in a narrative today. We don’t tend to have positive associations with the act of begging or with the idea of “pity,” and so medieval texts presenting such scenes are ripe for such misreadings. (Likewise, the entire class found Troilus off-putting; but in that case, I spent some time explaining the rhetorical of the medieval lover, and explaining that he’s *supposed* to put himself in his beloved’s power and beg for her pity. But maybe it didn’t stick or this student couldn’t then translate that similar language to the situation of the mourning women.) He also, apparently, missed that they were mourning and begging for the sake of their husbands’ honor, not their own, and he didn’t realize how very different the relationship between kings and subjects is (especially in its medieval idealized forms) from the relationship between citizens and elected governments. (There were bits of American individualist rhetoric in his paper.) And heck, in a world where Glenn Beck hates 9/11 victims’ families and the poor stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, it’s no wonder my student couldn’t muster up compassion for a group of unnamed, fictional, historical distant women who were, after all, mere words on a page.
But I’m not blaming my student for that failure. I’m blaming me. There were lots of misreadings like this during the semester, from various students, including misreadings of the critical texts they read for various assignments. If the benefits of reading difficult literature from the past include learning how to read and interpret difficult texts, as well as learning that the assumptions of some texts may not align with our own assumptions (whether it’s the meaning of a word like “pity,” or what makes a satisfying read, or bigger cultural and political assumptions), and through those lessons learn simply to recognize difference (and perhaps even become more sympathetic to it), then I failed to teach those lessons, to give my students those benefits.
And so, in the future, not only am I going to alternate Troilus and Criseyde (plus dream visions and/or bits of The Legend of Good Women) with The Canterbury Tales, and teach them in separate classes, but I’m going to sloooooooow the pace down. We’re going to do some serious close reading together, and we’re going to start with issues of diction, tone, and style before we proceed to anything else. I do this in my lower division intro to literary study (although not slowly enough), but it needs to be reinforced in the upper level classes, especially with texts as difficult as Chaucer, and with poetic texts in general. And as a participation element of my class, I’m going to require students to come to each class with a passage that they think needs to be looked at closely, along with written notes concerning their own interpretation of the passage. I’ll model this for them in the beginning, and then I’ll call on students — different ones each time — to share their passages. I might structure classes so that the first day on a given text or part of a text (say, Book III of Troilus and Criseyde), we do nothing but that, drawing on our knowledge of the rest to provide context for understanding. And then on the second day we’ll broaden the discussion, and show how we move from close reading to “far” reading. And yes, we’ll spend two days on every text or part of a text, unless it’s something very short (for example, “Adam Scriveyn”).
And we’ll do this with at least one secondary text, too. I found this semester that students claimed that perfectly well-written articles that I had them review on their own were “unclear” or “disorganized” because the students didn’t know how to follow a complex, multi-part argument and see its organization. They weren’t marking up their texts and noting the underlying structure, or they were getting lost in the details and forgetting where they’d been. So, I’ll assign an article that we’ll all read *and* discuss together. I’ll ask them to outline it, to find both the global organization (including the thesis) and the topic sentence or idea of every paragraph. I think I might use Mary Carruther’s “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions” for two reasons: 1) It’s a classic text that changed the way we read the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, and that will also allow a broader discussion of critical history and reception; 2) it’s a model of organization and argument, good for teaching students what a well-wrought argument looks like, without being too intimidating. If anybody has any other suggestions — perhaps an article that *doesn’t* rely on historical evidence so heavily, to provide a different kind of model — I’d welcome them.
In a 2008 whitepaper (link opens PDF file), the MLA recommended that the curriculum of the English or foreign language major should offer courses of the following types, and I think in my proposed re-design of my Chaucer course(s), I’m meeting, in part, the bolded suggestions:
• courses that develop literacies in reading and writing
• at least one course devoted to slow reading and in-depth study of an artistically great work or works
• at least one small seminar to develop individuals’ capacities to their fullest
• at least one team-taught or interdisciplinary class
• a course on disciplinary issues and scholarly debates
• the opportunity to study abroad
I think my redesign would also do a better job of teaching Chaucer! What do you think?