>When Chaucer is an intro-level class and other problems with "recommended" prerequisites

>From the nine comments on my last post — not a very good sample, I realize — it seems that most of you want me to write about teaching issues, particularly the inter-related problems of multiple audiences and students putting off “recommended” pre-requisites. And so that’s what I’ll do, mostly through the lens of my Chaucer class from Spring. I don’t really have any answers here, but maybe we can at least start a conversation and share some ideas.

First, though, some background. Our English major consists entirely of 3000 and 4000 level classes. The 1000 level is reserved for composition and the 2000 level consists of general education courses that don’t satisfy the major. To me this seems like an obvious system where each level corresponds roughly to a year in college — 1000 for first-year stuff, 2000 for more advanced general education courses you should be finishing up in the sophomore year, and 3000 and 4000 level courses for the major, which you’re largely doing in your junior and senior years, and where 4000 level courses are more advanced than 3000 level ones. This is partly reinforced in our major requirements where the 3000 level courses have names with “introduction” and “principles” and words like that in them, or where they’re called “X 1” and the 4000 version is called “X 2.” And a bunch of these courses with the seemingly obvious names are specifically required. So it should seem to the casual observer that one is supposed to take those 3000 level “introduction” courses first. Obviously. Or, at least it’s obvious to me, and it was so when I was an undergrad at an institution with the same kind of system. (Where it *didn’t* seem intuitive at all to me was in the major at my grad institution, which had 1-digit, 2-digit, and 3-digit courses, and once you got to the 3-digit level, there was some kind of distinction, but it wasn’t quite clear what that was.)

But apparently it’s not obvious to our students. For one thing, I’m starting to realize that they don’t look at the major as a whole — or few do, anyway. They don’t make a long term plan or think in sequences. That’s not how our students pick their courses. Rather, they do so one semester or, at best, one year at a time. And from what I’ve heard from the advisers in various areas — not just our majors — a lot of them don’t come in for advising from someone with a longer view until their senior year or just before it. And left on their own, they make choices that seem strange to me. I know a lot of them search by day and time, and they use the electronic system that gives them only the course name and brief, general catalog description, instead of consulting the detailed descriptions we write for them in a document that is both mailed to them and available on the department website. Our undergraduate adviser is working on that by developing a booklet that every student will get when they declare the major, which lays out for them the logic and order of the classes and the underlying curricular purposes of the requirements. But I bet that doesn’t stop a lot of students from the short-term thinking or from simply picking what fits their schedule or what’s taught by someone they heard is a good teacher.

So why aren’t there computer-enforced pre-requisites? Honestly, I don’t know. I think this state of affairs is combination of various causes, some of them buried deep in the past. Looking at my Chaucer class, it has three “recommended” prereequisites, one of which is the course I think should be a computer-enforced prereq, and two of which are 2000 level general education classes, which these days we teach not as “gateway” courses to majors but as “appreciation” classes (for lack of a better word) to more general audiences. (Although, honestly, were I teaching them, they’d only be slightly different from the true gateway-to-the-major course. But that’s another topic.) My guess is that once upon a time the faculty wanted to encourage “converts” (those other majors who realized their true love was English after all when they took a particularly good English gen ed course) and wanted them to be able to move into the upper level courses more quickly. Also, if these three courses were originally more alike in conception and the way they were taught, you’d want any one to be a pre-req. Certainly a computer registration system could be programmed to accept an “X or Y” type choice, but that may have gotten all fouled up in a relatively recent switch to a new system. Or maybe it was beyond the old system. I really don’t know for sure, but I do know that our catalog of courses looks in many ways like the accumulation of piecemeal changes, and so the pre-req system (or lack of one) may be the result of that, too.

The other problem might be that the three concentrations within the English major didn’t used to have the same core required courses, and so a student in, say, the creative writing concentration wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same 3000 course that the English lit concentrators all have to take, but might want to take some of the same 4000 level courses, and so a computer-enforced prereq would require an override in such cases every time. (Or maybe such a pre-req wasn’t possible since the computer saw them all as English majors, regardless of concentraion.) But just recently this has changed, and *all* English majors have the same core requirements.

That change is due to our undergraduate advisor, who is also the head of the undergrad curriculum committee, who has been doing a bang-up job reorganizing the major and making it make better sense — that is, looking less like a bunch of accumulated, piecemeal changes. But he’s much more interested in the curricular and pedagogical logic of things than the nuts and bolts, and probably hasn’t thought of things like computer-enforced prereqs (or out of date recommended ones). [Note to self: bring this up with him!]

Then there’s the additional problem of the English-Ed majors. If they were still all English *and* Education *double* majors, it wouldn’t be a problem, but the school of Ed recently devised a single degree option and, frankly, gutted the actual subject content in favor of the pedagogical and curricular courses over in Ed. (The ambitious students still do both degrees, thank heavens.) Those pedagogical courses *are* important, I do realize, but right now the English-Ed single degree requires *no* 4000 level courses. and most of the content is from 2000-level general ed classes. And whoever designed what it does include — without consulting us — put in bizarre courses from the catalog that we don’t actually teach all that often. *headdesk* But more germane to today’s point is this: what those single degree English-Ed students have to take isn’t the same as what our English majors have to take, and that screws up the pre-req system as well.

OK, end of boring background. Now, what does this mean for the classroom?

It means that in Spring’s Chaucer class, as I only learned well into the semester — and in one case, at the end of the semester — I had students who were starting the major and simultaneously taking the intro-level class and mine; English-Ed students who were taking elective English content courses, and had had some English lit courses, but not the core intro class that most of us think of as the foundation of everything after; English majors who knew the ropes already; clueless students only just beginning the English major and taking Chaucer first before anything else; and, on top of all that, MA students of various backgrounds, abilities, and preparation. (Oh, and as a corollary situation, I had two students in my section of the intro level class who had taken all or most of my upper level classes already. They were both smart students who’d managed to find their way through those other courses, but they had a *lot* of eureka moments in the intro class that might have helped had they had that class *before* the others!)

Oy. How do you teach to that mix? In the past I’ve tried various strategies. In the two most recent go-arounds of Chaucer, I’ve redesigned the writing assignments to be a series of short papers that build skills every English major should have and that help students cope with the special challenges of Chaucer. I modelled it on the assignment sequence that Jeffrey Cohen once posted about over at In the Middle. They start with simple translation assignments with reflective essays about what gets lost in translation. Then they move to more complex interpretative assignments — close readings of passages, longer essays. They also review a secondary article (which I pick out, though there’s a choice) along the way, to help build to their final paper, where they mount their own argument in conversation with two articles they find themselves. So, it seems, that I’ve arranged a nice scaffolded sequence of assignments that build skills in relation to the subject at hand — Chaucer — and the discipline as a whole.

But as basic as those first assignments seem — and there were a number of low-stakes close-readings for them to learn from — a lot of them didn’t know what to do even after a *lot* of commenting on my part and dealing with individual sets of knowledge gaps student by student. The kinds of things they didn’t know how to do included a lot of the stuff I drill in the intro class, including: the difference between summary and analysis; the necessity of remembering that characters are not real people, that they’re illusions created by language, that they can’t make choices; the need to turn to the text frequently for evidence, and how to do that both in terms of the mechanics and the logic and argument; the need to *make* an argument; and the most difficult but necessary move from describing what a text does, however prettily, to thinking about what and how it means. Ideally, the upper division classes would be where we talk about that last point the most, and add the various methods and materials and knowledge for talking about that (theories, contexts, genres, etc.). But with many of my students — including, btw, an occassional MA level student — I didn’t get to that last point because they’re just getting the hang of the other issues. There was one student this semester whom I could never get to move past his personal reaction to characters. He wrote weird, angry essays about all the women who were sexually or emotionally unfaithful and claimed — when he had a thesis at all — that his disgust with them was Chaucer’s disgust. I really should have required that guy to come talk to me (I did urge him, but didn’t require him), not to berate him for his misogyny (although that *was* disturbing) but just to teach him that characters aren’t real and that his sitting in judgement over them said more about him than about Chaucer. (Although, in retrospect, I guess it taught me that Chaucer’s women push the buttons of certain kinds of men. OK, duly noted.) It saddened me that he could never imaginatively move out of his own point of view enough to see that maybe Chaucer was saying something very different and that maybe he might learn something from that (such as, for example, that women have sexual desires, which, judging from his screeds, he desperately needed to learn). Had he been in my intro class, he would have had many assignments and activities that precisely talked about how our immediate reactions to texts can sometimes be with the grain of the text or sometimes against the grain, and that one of the first things we need to do to be more analytical is make those kinds of distinctions and figure out what we think the text wants from us (or if that’s radically unclear, so be it).

I don’t mind having to reinforce lessons learned in the intro classes, or needing to teach the quirks of reading older literature (for example, that it rarely, if ever, is naturalistic or a depiction of everyday lives the way that, say, the social novel is). But it’s damned difficult to teach simultaneously to MA-level students with aspirations for the Ph.D. and student who are, for all intents and purposes, coming straight from their high school level lit classes where, appropriate to that level, they do tend to talk about how a text made them feel or if they liked a character or not. It’s hard enough to pitch any upper level course to a broad array of English majors who’ll go on to various careers and lives. And it’s a bit more hard to teach to that body *plus* the MA students. But then it gets a whole exponential level harder to add the underprepared students who are going through the major haphazardly. This has probably always been the case since I’ve been at Rust Belt, but it seemed a particularly intense problem this past semester. There were some “light bulb” moments and I have no doubt that a lot of the students learned a whole lot about thinking analytically about how literature works. If they realize that it wasn’t just about my course, and if they carry that knowledge to other courses, they’ll benefit in the long run. But some grades took some serious hits (and I’m sure my evals did as a result). And it was a harder struggle than usual — it was a Chaucer course lacking some of the joy that it usually has. I think that was partly because so many of the students were dealing with the anxiety that is Chaucer alone — it’s hard! it’s weird! it’s not a novel! — plus the anxiety that my assignments and comments and grades provoked.

And this isn’t limited to my Chaucer course. I had a lot of the same problems in the broader medieval lit course the previous semester, but that semester’s class was weird and wacky in so many other ways because of the personality clashes and dramas going on in it that the usual pedagogical issues were overshadowed by the rest of the nuttiness. And so I’m sure this radical mix of levels and preparation will happen in future courses.

So, what now? We could, maybe, enforce the intro-level class pre-req. We do offer the class every semester and in the summer, too. But what if we can’t? How do I (re) adapt what I’m doing to the various audiences and levels and needs of my students? Do you have any ideas, because I’m kind of fresh out.

>Slow and steady: my new motto for teaching

>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?

>Changing up Chaucer

>This post is in part a follow up to the post before last, in which I lamented my boredom with doing the same-old, same-old in the big medieval class. It is also, in part, for Meg, who asked, in another context, for ideas for new stuff to do in her Chaucer class.

Now a class on Chaucer is hard to change very easily. Your big questions are: Do I try and do a little of everything (Troilus and Criseyde, a dream vision or two, a selection of The Canterbury Tales, maybe even some of the short poetry or a single legend from The Legend of Good Women)? Or do I stick to The Canterbury Tales? (This is your choice unless, that is, you’re teaching at a school with separate Canterbury Tales and Troilus-and-everything-else courses. Oh, and I suppose you could just do the Troilus-and-everything-else course, but I can’t bring myself not to do the Tales at least in part.) I alternate between those two options, and in the little-bit-of-everything version, I change the Tales or the selections from the other works when I get bored.

But now I’ve been doing that and I’m bored again. So now I’m futzing with *how* I teach it all — from the emphases I give the course to the assignments I give. Last year I borrowed and adapted a writing assignment sequence from Jeffrey Cohen that builds skills from comprehension of Middle English (through translation) to analysis of passages, to arguments with other critics. To that I added one of my own favorite assignments, in which I ask students to write a modern imitation of a Chaucerian dream vision (albeit in prose), which is an exercise in genre analysis in disguise. I think I may keep most of that this time around, though I may be getting rid of the dream visions this time around, so no imitation. And in the last go-round, I assigned the passages for translation and analysis, but I may let students pick their own next time, because trying to figure out what’s worth talking about in close detail is an analytic and interpretative skill, too.

But the big change I’m thinking about making is kind of wacky. And I’m wondering what you all think. I’m thinking about focusing on transmission and adaptation, from the manuscript to early print editions to later imitations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work (and also Chaucer’s adaptation of his sources), and so I’m thinking of having the class read Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida after we’re done with Troilus and Criseyde. And I’m thinking of giving a day over to discussion A Knight’s Tale; of using some or all of the BBC’s fairly recent adaptations (I have the Wife of Bath episode on VHS); of playing some of Baba Brinkman’s hip-hop Chaucer along the way; and of utterly traumatizing students with a bit of Pasolini’s Racconti di Canterbury at the end of the semester, if I can get my hands on either a tape or DVD of it. Or maybe instead of Pasolini at the end, we could read one of the 15th century continuations of the tales in the TEAMS edition edited by John Bowers. But I’d also assign critical articles as “adaptations,” too, because part of the point of this would be to talk about adaptation as interpretation — and so, interpretation as adaptation. And in the writing assignments and other discussion we’d be talking about translation as adaptation and interpretation, too.

Out of 16 weeks, this would take away three weeks (six classes) from Chaucer “proper” — the rest would be blended in and done in excerpt alongside Chaucer “proper.” It would mean a lot of reading, but I think it might enrich the discussion of Chaucer’s own works immensely, and put them in broad context of reception and interpretation. And that might also help students put themselves and their interpretative activities in context and in a greater conversation, too. I worry, often, that when I teach Chaucer only in his 14th century contexts — as cool and interesting as that can be — that students consciously or unconsciously feel justified in filing him away as “classic.” Shudder. That’s such a deadly word. Although I bring in the present or the very recent past all the time in all my classes, I think maybe a smattering of adaptations from the centuries immediately following Chaucer and our own age would make the point better that “Chaucer” is not confined to the 14th century.

What do you think?

>My graduate students crack me up

>Two of the grad students from my Chaucer class are very close friends, and one of them told me they jokingly refer to each other as “rivals.” So get this: for their final papers in that class, one of them wrote on the Friar’s Tale and the other wrote on the Summoner’s Tale. Ha! Even cooler — we didn’t read these tales in the class, so they discovered the Friar-Summoner rivalry all on their own.

I love it when papers amuse me in surprising and positive ways — it always makes the grading process easier.


>Yesterday in Chaucer class, my students and I discussed Book V of Troilus and Criseyde. I pointed out that the word “remembraunce” is used 8 times in that book and we discussed what it meant and why that might be important. Was it only “memory” or did it have then the connotations it has for us now, of memorial and loss? (It did.) And we talked about the reliance on the “apostrophe” (a direct address to an absent or inanimate addressee) in this book, as well as the appearance of letters to and from Troilus and Criseyde, and the somewhat surprising appearance of the “ubi sunt” motif, that mainstay of Latin and Old English elegiac poetry. We put this all together and pondered whether this wasn’t primarily a love story after all, if maybe Chaucer had used the love story as a vehicle for getting at the inevitability of death, loss, and mourning.

It all seemed rather depressing and inappropriate for Valentine’s day. But unfortunately death and “remembraunce” was a truly and terribly appropriate theme for a university classroom in the midwest on Valentine’s Day 2008.

My heart goes out to the students, faculty, and staff of Northern Illinois University, and their families, particularly to those who now have the responsibility of remembrance for the 6 students and the gunman who are all now dead.