Happy New Year!

2013 wasn’t a bad year or a particularly notable year, though Bullock and I did celebrate 10 years together, and I was named Humanities Institute director. Otherwise, it was a kind of normal year, I guess. We didn’t quite end the year in a particularly good way, though — Bullock had a root canal and Pippi had to be taken to the vet for a foot injury, both on the last days of the year. My two gingers are recovering now.

Professionally, 2013 was solid. The anthology that I co-edited technically came out in 2012, but Spring 2013 was the first semester it was used in classes, and it did pretty well for such a specialized volume. So that’s cool. And I taught our gen-ed poetry class three times in a row (well, two consecutively) to reasonable success. Since this was the first time I’d taken on this particular class, that was good. (But I’d forgotten how much non-majors balk at having to learn technical terms. Seriously, guys, when in Rome!) Oh, and I *finally* finished the Article That Wouldn’t Die (or whatever I called it last) and submitted it to Dream Journal. This is the first time I’ve blindly submitted an article since my very first article submission — everything in between has grown out of something else (like a conference) or been invited in some way (but often still peer reviewed). Scary! Fingers crossed!

2014, however, is already shaping up to be a little more eventful, at least professionally. Here’s what I have planned so far, a list of bullet points I offer in lieu of resolutions.

  • A presentation later this month at a selective, by-application workshop for manuscript scholars that I *hope* will jump start where I need to go next on my in-progress not-quite-a-book-yet research.
  • A trip to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual conference. I’m looking forward especially to the workshops for directors and for the public humanities, and to being in Hong Kong! I last visted HK in the early 90s, but got sick on the way from Guilin to HK and spent the whole three days of our visit in the hotel room. So I added three extra days in the city — one before and two after — to just be a tourist. The conference and thus the hotels are in Sha Tin, which is outside of the city center in the New Territories (where the university hosting the conference is), but I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting around on public transportation and off the beaten track a bit.
  • A trip to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I’m especially psyched to visit a new country. NCS has arranged a lot of excursions of the kind I might have taken anyway, so I’m only adding on two extra days for being a tourist on my own, especially since, holy crap, hotels in Iceland are freakin’ expensive in high season! Strangely, Hong Kong is cheaper. Even at the non-conference rate, I’ll get to stay in a *swank* high-end hotel with a Tolo Harbor view in Hong Kong for about the same as I’m paying for a two-star, bare basics Reykjavik hotel at the conference rate! (Yes, yes, I realize that the Yuan is artificially controlled and that the hotels in Chinese cities like Hong Kong are probably also partly subsidized to encourage tourist and business travel. But still, it kind of surprised me.) Bullock was going to go to Iceland with me, but when we realized that the two of us could take a non-work-related trip somewhere else less expensive for the cost of taking him to Iceland with me, we decided I’d go solo.
  • And I’m excited about what I’m doing/presenting at NCS, too. My anthology co-editor and I arranged a seminar (something relatively new for NCS — I’m interested in seeing how it goes) on a text near and dear to us both. And I’m presenting on a teaching panel about something I’m doing in my medieval lit class this spring, which brings me to…
  • My awesome medieval lit class this spring! I haven’t been this psyched for a class since I did that awesome ASNaC class in 2011. (That’s Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, btw.) It really deserves its own post. Maybe the next one. Anyway, this time I’m focusing on manuscript collections and anthologies from the Exeter Book to the Morte Darthur (which I’m reading, somewhat atypically, as a collection of sorts), with a bunch of miscellanies in between (Harley 978, with Marie de France’s Lais and Fables — collections in a collection! — and “Sumer is icumen in”; Laud Misc. 108 with Havelok and Horn and saint’s lives; the Auchinleck MS; and so on). I’ve arranged the syllabus by MS collections and paper assignments are all going to be about how we read such collections (e.g., read a work not assigned for class from one of our collections and write about how it fits the whole or works in tension with it). There will be lots of digital resources, too, to give students a sense of the material book. And I think I finally figured out how to give the grad students in a “slash” course a more graduate student worthy experience — they’re going to present their research projects in the two-hour time slot reserved for the final and the undergrads will be their audience and interlocutors (something I can totally repeat in future classes).
  • And the Humanities Institute will be up and running soon! Our first event is the first of our Humanities Happy Hours. I’m still trying to get a big speaker for a major event — important people are bad at answering emails! — but I’m actually more excited for the Triple-H (as I call it) series, which will showcase *our* humanities scholars in a public-friendly way.
  • I’m also going to write and submit my first big organizational (as opposed to individual) grant for our HI. I’m going to start with a regional one and then if that’s a success, maybe aim higher next year. I’m kind of looking forward to this. Yes, I know I’m weird.
  • I’m also writing a short essay on “managing down time” for a collection of essays that Greg Semenza is co-editing as a companion to Graduate Study for the 21st Century. So, um, first I must manage my down time! 🙂  (Seriously, no big plans for the personal life — just the usual making time to relax and exercise and all that. And maybe get back to teaching myself Italian, which I started last summer and then dropped.)

So what are your plans for 2014, professional or personal, or both?

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>My super-awesome, brand-new early medieval lit course for the fall; or, something to be excited about!

>OK, I should be doing research work now—I still haven’t been as productive as I’d like to have been this sabbatical—but I’m excited about one of my fall classes and I wanted to tell you all about it, both in terms of its content (which the medievalists should be interested in and can give me feedback on) and in terms of its methods, objectives, and assessments, which just about anyone in literature or the humanities more generally might have something to say about. And can I just say that I’m glad I’m finally looking forward to teaching again? Some of you may remember a post from last semester in which I admitted I was burnt out as burnt out can be. It’s amazing what time away plus a revamped course can do to get you excited again!

First of all, let me give you some background on the revamping. Here in the RBU English department, we have one undergraduate course on the books for the broad medieval period (which, btw, is “slashed,” or combined with the lower-level MA course). We also have a Chaucer course. I can come up with other courses and offer them as special topics, but our students seem to be allergic to special topics, thinking they won’t count for anything, even when they will—even when we say so in the course description. (Problem number one is that they don’t always read the course description—the one written for that semester’s particular version of the course—and if they read anything, they read the brief, vague catalog description.) Anyway, in previous years I treated the everything-but-Chaucer course as a kind of smorgasbord introduction to the entire medieval period, from the Anglo-Saxon period through the 15th century and even a little into the 16th (if we count the performance history of medieval drama). I used to put up a timeline on the first day to show them that we’d be speeding through more centuries of literature than all of their other English literature courses combined! It was enough to make my head spin, and I’m used to thinking across large swaths of time. In the very beginning, I tried to get some Irish and Welsh literature in there as well as Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin literature, but the one time I did that, the class was an amorphous mess of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be The Táin ” kind of sampling. Bleh. So after awhile I started whittling down to the texts I most loved to teach or knew best. And for awhile that worked, but I knew that my students and I were both missing out on so much other good stuff, and I was starting to feel my brain atrophy. So, two years ago, with the encouragement of the undergraduate studies chair and the vote of the faculty, I changed the course description in the catalog to say that subsequent semesters would alternate between the earlier and later parts of the 8+ centuries of the medieval period, with some semesters offering thematically arranged topics across the whole period; it also directs students to consult the course description on the department website to find out the current topic. We also made it possible for students to repeat the course for credit if the specific topics are different (this is especially important for any MA students who are interested in the Middle Ages, but may also be true of some undergraduates).

So. Here we are approaching book-ordering and course description-writing time for next fall and I have to make good on my promise! This fall I’ll be devoting the class to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (ASNaC) literatures, roughly those written or thought to have their origins before the full conquest of the Normans (for the Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh literatures) or from roughly the same period for the Old Norse literature—basically up to the 11th century for the Anglo-Saxon literature and up to the 12th and 13th centuries for the rest. There will, of course, be a little fudging, but the next time, I’ll start with the Norman invasion in England and stick to the British Isles. And then after that, having taught a bigger range of texts, I’ll know better what works for the students and what works together, and I’ll come up with a thematically arranged class.

Of course, my more historically arranged courses aren’t going to be without their themes, and one of the driving themes of this ASNaC course is the interlocking contact of these cultures. The Irish sent monks to England; the Vikings invaded England and Ireland; Wayland the smithy shows up in the both Old English and Old Norse contexts; shape-shifters appear in Norse and Celtic texts; the warrior-poet (or at least the articulate warrior) is a recurring figure across the cultures, and text after text brings the poet and/or the scribe into the narrative; the surviving texts are all written or written down by Christians but often draw on the pagan past even for explicitly Christian subjects; and so on. I know that it’s really difficult to show or prove direct influence between the vernacular literatures in these cultures, but I want to create a general impression of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, vibrant—even violent—state of flux for the insular and peninsular cultures of the North Sea in and around the British Isles. And so my syllabus isn’t going to be arranged in any neat geographic or chronological way (which would be really hard to do, anyway, given how many questions there are about dates and places of origin for so many of these texts). I don’t have it all sorted out yet, but on the first day I’ll show images of three material objects—The Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Franks Casket (especially the Wayland/Magi side)—to stage the shared cultures and influences, and also to begin pointing out the blend or juxtaposition of pagan and Christian narratives and themes (well, in the Franks Casket, anyway). The next day I’m thinking of either doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and the Eddic “Lay of Volund” (to continue the “Wayland is everywhere!” theme, and also to set up the poet-as-hero idea with the first two), or else jumping into The Táin (after all, the Celts were in Britain first!), and doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and “The Lay of Volund” after Beowulf, which I’d do after The Táin (to contrast “epic” heroic tales from two cultures). At any rate, I’m definitely going to intersperse appropriately analogous Eddic poems throughout the reading of Old English and Old Norse texts, and I may assign Hrolf Kraki’s Saga right after the Beowulf -“Widsith” sequence, to get all those references to Hrothgar together. Usually I teach Judith after Beowulf, since they are manuscript neighbors, after all, and because I like to teach Judith as a response to Beowulf—especially as a rather critical response to the heroic drinking culture—which complicates the whole “yeah, we’re Christians, but we admire our pagan ancestors” idea. But Judith could be fruitfully put off until after Hrolf Kraki. And skipping to the end of my syllabus, I’m going to put the Welsh last just to honor the fact that they were the last to fall to the Normans among the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Well, they’ll be sort of last, because on the very last day of reading, I’m going to assign “Pangur Ban,” which is an Irish poem (and one of the oldest poetic texts on the syllabus), but which uses a Welsh word (“pangur”) in the name of the poem’s eponymous cat. And I’ll be assigning it in Seamus Heaney’s translation in order to reinforce the continued and very present-day vibrancy of this very old body of literature. (I also think it’s a great poem to end with right before final exams since it depicts the scholar at work.) But The Mabinogi and Taliesin will get pride of place just before “Pangur Ban,” even though the Book of Taliesin and “The Tale of Taliesin” are later in their manuscript forms than the dates I’ve imposed above. Like I said, there will be fudging.

So that’s roughly the content of the course. I’ve got the list of texts I want to do and some rough idea where they’ll go in the syllabus, but I haven’t worked out the finer details yet, and in order to do that, first I have to, ahem, *read* some of these texts. I’ve never read most of the Old Norse material (or only in excerpt or summary form), but thanks to my friends on Facebook, I got a lot of good suggestions for stuff to assign and I’m going to sort through it this summer as I prep the class. And I’m excited to read it, too, because, hey, new stuff! (Well, new to me.) But I’m just as excited about the shape of the rest of the class—its assignments and their conception—as I am about the content. So lemme tell you about that, too, K?

For the undergraduates, there are going to be five graded components: participation, which counts a variety of ways of “participating” (10%); 8 one-page response papers (40% – 5% each); 10 submitted discussion questions (10% – 1% each); a 6-8 page essay in which they analyze at least three different translations of a text (20%); and a final essay-exam (20%). In the past I’ve taken exams out of my course assignments and replaced them with more writing assignments, but I’ve decided to put an exam back into the equation in this class for a few reasons. First of all, since one of the overarching themes of the class is the connections between the bodies of literature we’re reading (even if those connections are nothing more than thematic), I want assessment that emphasizes seeing and articulating those connections, analogies, and parallels. A final, cumulative exam does that better than discrete papers on individual texts. I’m also going to emphasize making connections in the ongoing short assignments—the response papers and the discussion questions—both of which will also serve to keep students engaged in the material. Between the response papers and the discussion questions, they’ll have to have thought deeply about at least 18 different texts assigned in the course (because they won’t be able to do a response paper and a discussion question on the same text), which will set them up well for the exam. Still, concentrated focus and sustained analysis of a text is important, too, and that’s what the translation analysis paper is about. And the response papers are about close reading, so those assignments are related in their skills, as well. But the other reason why I decided on a final exam rather than a final paper is something Tenured Radical said (though I can’t find the exact post now) about giving students different ways to succeed in a class. Some students get neurotic about papers; some get neurotic about exams. I’m hoping that the short and largely informal nature of the response papers will keep the paper-writing neuroses down to a minimum, plus students can write them quickly (like an exam) or fuss over them, if that’s their wont. And then the exam will be there for those who do well under pressure.

Meanwhile, the way I’ve set up preparation for the exam—especially since there’s only one and it’s cumulative—should help the students feel really invested in it and in the content of the course, as well as prepared for it. I’m really excited about this bit, because it’s the first time I’ve planned something like this. Instead of assigning any new texts to read in the last week, the students and I are going to use that time to collectively write the exam. Like the discussion questions (and to some extent, the response papers), this is planned to help students realize that in many way they make the course what it is and determine what they get out of it; what’s more, in both cases, I hope they’ll learn by doing, rather than by merely responding. But again, it’s also about the content of the course, about making connections. So, on the penultimate day of class, students will be charged with coming to class having reviewed the semester’s work (oh, and yes, I’m going to emphasize note-taking in this class) and being prepared to talk about the themes of the course and its texts. (I am partly inspired on this point by Jeffrey Cohen’s “Myths of Britain” class and their final review session, which he blogged about here.) And here’s where I go crazy: after that class, they’ll be charged with coming back on the final day with three potential final exam questions they’ve written themselves, based on the list of themes we’ve generated together. And we’ll use that last day of class to select and hone at least ten questions. They’ll know that the three final exam questions will come from that list of ten which they have helped to write, but I get to choose the final three. Now, I’m going to let them know this—and everything above—from the very beginning of the semester. In many of my classes, I give out the complete packet of assignments on the first day of class, and I intend to do that here, too (and schedule time to talk about each one on subsequent days). And so they’ll know from the beginning that they’re going to be responsible for helping to create the exam, but also that I reserve the right to do it myself if I think they’re slacking or trying to get away with something. And the discussion question assignment will help them learn what really generates essay-length discussion and what doesn’t. The pedagogical goal here is to get them actively making connections, cataloging, and sorting ideas as we go and in summary at the end of the semester. That’s what a final exam is traditionally supposed to get students to do, but I find my students often regard a final exam itself as an opaque and mysterious thing and don’t know how to go about making the broader-stroke connections it asks. If they have a hand in making it themselves, perhaps it will become more transparent to them—and that’s a lesson they can take to other classes, too.

That’s the undergraduate side of things. The graduate student side is a little different. First of all, I don’t expect many graduate students to take the course, but for those who do, they’ll have to do the response papers and discussion questions, too, as well as participate, of course. But instead of the short translation analysis and final exam, they’ll have a graduate-level research paper in three stages: preliminary abstract/research question; polished abstract and annotated bibliography; and final paper. And I intend to make them meet with me for one group session about how best to go about the research and for individual sessions as they tighten up their research plan. But in keeping with the meta-theme of making connections—as well as accounting for the fact that it’s rare that I have graduate students who want to be medievalists (the last two years bringing a plethora of exceptions, but still being the exception)—I’m going to allow them to write on issues of reception and revival if they wish. So if they want to write on Taliesin in The Idylls of the King, or Heaney’s “Irishing” of Beowulf, or neo-Norse paganism and American pop culture, or whatever, they can. It might be harder for me to help them do it, but I’ll enjoy learning something from their work.

So there you have it: a fall class almost ready to go on February 1st! Can you tell I was procrastinating? So, what do you think?

>Advice for a budding medievalist (in literary studies)

>Yes, I’m still here. Holiday travels and events, plus getting back into the swing of organizing my unstructured time, took a toll on my blogging. Also, I was trying to decide what to write about next and dithering over it until I got an e-mail today asking me to give advice to a first year undergraduate student at another institution who’s interested in medieval literature and in possibly pursuing graduate studies down the line. And I thought, “Wow, that would make a great blog post, especially since it’s medieval in content and I haven’t written a medieval-related post in awhile (which means that Jonathan Jarrett has probably taken me off of his blog roll or is about to!).”

So let me share a draft of what I might write to him when he writes to me (it was his professor who first contacted me on his behalf and the student hasn’t gotten in touch with me) and see what you think. Please feel free to add to or argue with what I say. And since it’s advice for a student at a very small college, where departments consist of 3-5 people and no classical languages are taught, perhaps in the comments we can also make suggestions for those students at bigger colleges and universities. (And note that in the letter I *gently* address the “whether you should go to graduate school at all” issue. He *is* only a freshling.) Also, if my tone is too condescending, please tell me! I’m not used to talking to first years about graduate school!

Edited to add: with some minor revisions, you could easily adapt this advice to apply to any English major. Do a few more revisions, and it could apply to any humanities major or any other liberal arts major. Feel free to use, adapt, and link!

So, here’s what I might write:

Dear Stu,

I’m so glad your professor put you in touch with me. I’m happy to answer your questions and give you some general advice about what to do to pursue your interests in medieval literature now and in the future. You’re already *way* ahead of the game by thinking about graduate school already as a first year student. I didn’t realize that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until I was already out of college, and I felt like I spent the first couple of years in graduate school catching up with what I didn’t know. So, in a way, the advice I’m giving you now is what I wish I had done myself as an undergraduate.

OK, first of all, you have three and a half years to explore: to find out what you love, what you’re good at, and who you want to be. Don’t be so focused on the goal of getting into graduate school to study medieval literature that you miss your chance to learn new things — things you might not even yet know you’ll love. You can get more advice like this about college in general and how to get most out of it from the book The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts (University Chicago Press). Not all of his advice will apply to you, since the author works at a big research university (Northwestern) and bases a lot of advice on what resources students at such big places have. For example, he says not to take too many courses with any single professor, but there are only 5 professors in your English department, so that can’t be helped. Also, he has an annoying habit of saying that most professors are more interested in their research than teaching. That’s definitely not true at your college, which is committed to undergraduate teaching, and it’s not even true of everyone at a research university like his. But most of his advice is excellent and equally applicable to you as it is to a Northwestern student.

But now, on to the more specific advice about your plans to pursue medieval literature. First of all, as an undergraduate, you shouldn’t narrow yourself too much beyond the major, and your major is English literature, not only medieval literature. Make your goal being the best *English* major you can be and you’ll actually be helping your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Admissions committees in Ph.D. programs don’t want to see someone so focused so early that they seem unwilling to learn or incapable of making connections across a wider literary history. As professors we often have to teach outside of our specialties in surveys and introductory classes, so the better educated you are in English studies more broadly (including English literature, American literature, comparative and world literature, and rhetoric and composition), the more flexible a scholar and teacher you’ll be. If your department offers a literary theory course, be sure to take that, as you’ll need it in graduate school, and it will give you the tools to think with as you study and write about literature now. Start thinking of yourself now as one who studies and thinks about literature and how it works, and not just someone who reads lots of literature. And to do that really well, it helps to think about how language works, so if take a history of the English language course if it’s offered. It also helps to have experience thinking about as many different genres and cultural and historical contexts as possible, so try to take a range of courses that teach you about as many periods and types of literature as possible, even ones you think you might not like. Even if you still want to be a medievalist, those other courses will help you think about how literature works, and therefore how medieval literature works, perhaps in contrast to how a novel or short story or modern play or contemporary poem works. Take the maximum credits you’re allowed in your major department, but don’t skimp on related fields: history, philosophy, art history, literature from other cultures and languages (more on languages in a minute), and theater (especially theater history). As you’re doing all this, get to know your professors, not just in class, but out of class in their office hours and any department events. The more they know you, your work, and your goals, the better their letters of recommendation will be for you. At a small college like yours, it’s really easy to know your professors and for them to know you — take advantage of that opportunity.

And as you get further in your major, start doing research and reading criticism about the works you’re writing about. Write research papers for as many classes as you can — ones that don’t just summarize what other critics have said, but that enter into conversations with them, argue with them, and get ideas from them (with all due credit, of course!). Ask your professors for advice on what to read, on how to do research (if there isn’t a course on research methods), and on how to write in conversation with the criticism you find as you progress in the major. (I recommend the book They Say / I Say as a good guide to writing research papers, and librarians are *great* human resources for helping you learn to do the research.) If your college or the English department offers you the chance to write an honors thesis, take it. Graduate school and a large part of being a professor is about doing research and writing original scholarship about literature — again, in conversation with other scholars — so the earlier you learn to think that way and to read what others have written, the better jump you’ll have on graduate school and being a scholar yourself. After all, one of the best ways to learn to do something is to imitate someone else doing it, and in reading and thinking about literary criticism, you can start using that criticism as models for your own writing.

While on your college’s web site, I saw that your department offers a summer study-abroad trip to England with the professor who teaches medieval and early modern literature in English. If you can afford it, go on this trip. You get course credit and a great experience all in one, and there’s nothing like being in the places you’ve only read about. Even if you’ve been to England before, being a student there is different from being a tourist, and includes opportunities you’ll only really get as a student.

Now, there isn’t time in four years to take every course ever offered, and you have other requirements and educational goals to meet, too (and you should aim to get that broad liberal arts education in the best sense — don’t skimp on the science and social science courses). So you should be choosy in some ways. Since you want to be a medievalist, choose courses in related fields most closely related to your interests. You’ll still get the benefit of breadth, since you’ll be learning how different disciplines have different goals and objects of study. If there aren’t enough specifically medieval offerings in history, art history, philosophy, etc., take courses on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (especially Roman) and on the European Renaissance. Or find out what was going on in Asia and North America while Europe was in the Middle Ages.

And take as much of a foreign language or two as you can. Be serious about learning the language beyond the required two years. Unfortunately, your college doesn’t seem to offer Latin, so take French or German, or both. If you passed out of the language requirement, take another one anyway, or get better in the one you know. Most Ph.D. programs require proficiency in at least one foreign language, and sometimes two. For medievalists studying English literature, Latin, French, and German are the most useful, commonly-taught languages to know. There are intensive summer programs in Latin, if that’s an option for you now (Google the phrase “intensive Latin summer courses”); you could also leave that for later, once you’re in a graduate program.

And finally, start looking into graduate programs in your junior year. Most applications are due in December and January of the year before you plan to start. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking time off from school — I took three years — but if you want to go straight from college, you’ll really need to start getting applications ready over the summer and early fall of your senior year. While you’re doing all this, talk to your professors, especially the more recent graduates of Ph.D. programs — the ones with the title “Assistant Professor” — and ask them about what graduate school is like, where they went, what being a professor is like (especially beyond the classroom), and how they got their jobs. I’ll be honest: I don’t recommend graduate school for everyone. But you’re off to such an early start thinking about it, that if you start preparing now, even if you choose to go another route, you’ll still have given yourself a great and enjoyable education. If by this time two years from now, in your junior year, you’re still thinking about graduate school and no one has given you the “bad news” talk, get back in touch with me. And in the meantime, use the resources of your career center and learn about other career paths you might take. There are a lot of interesting careers out there you’ve never even heard of, as well as a lot of smart people in the world who love literature but who aren’t professors and have fulfilling lives. It’s good to have options.

And any time you want to ask me more advice — especially about graduate programs for budding medievalists — drop me a line. Best of luck and keep in touch!

>Prof, bored with course, needs new ideas

>OK all you smart medievalists and medieval lit teaching early modernists out there, I need your advice.

For five out of the last six academic years, I’ve taught our medieval-literature-excluding-Chaucer class, which is one of those monstrous 800 years in 16 weeks kind of courses. It’s like I’m the only person in the department who has to teach a real survey course, and frankly, I’m not fond of survey courses. After doing this five times I can see very clearly just how superficial our discussion of *everything* is. And there are certain texts I feel like I have to do every time, which means that even though they’re texts I like very much and find something new in every time (e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I’m still getting bored with them or with the discussions and papers they provoke. And a bored teacher is a bad teacher. One semester after winning that Awesomest Prof Ever award and I’m starting to look more like Lamest. Prof. Ever.

So I talked with Milton about this, as he’s the chair of the undergrad lit curriculum committee. We discussed the possibility of splitting the class into two — one Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (and Latin!), and one Anglo-Norman and Middle English (and Latin!) — or about just alternating the subject each time I taught it. See, in our curriculum, students don’t have a lot of historical period requirements — they simply have to take at least one pre-1800 lit class and one post-1800 lit class in the British lit offerings — so it’s not like I’d be gypping them on their way to their early modern class if they got the ASNaC version instead of the late medieval version. But yeah, I would be exposing them to less of the broader medieval period, of course. (An aside: I’ve become more and more convinced over time that specific content knowledge is less important than the broader intellectual experiences and skills learned in a variety of classes, across the curriculum and across the major. But that’s a post for another day.) So Bullock suggested that in changing the course description (if I keep it a single course), I should also make it repeatable if the content is different, which will be especially important for undergrads and grad students who want to go on to the Ph.D. and specialize in medieval literature — it will actually give them *more* instruction in the field. I’m now also thinking that I want to keep the option of doing the whole 800-year shebang so that if I want to do a thematic course across the period, I can. Plus, we all know how porous that 1066 boundary is. Finally, I want to be able to throw a bit of Chaucer in there if I want. This “excluding Chaucer” business is nutty, especially since it’s not like students are definitely going to take the Chaucer class for their single author requirement, since they have a range of choices.

So here’s what I’m thinking of doing. I’ll keep it one course, but I’ll change the title to something like “Topics in Medieval Literature” (or maybe just “Medieval Literature”) and write a general catalog description that makes clear that some offerings might be ASNaC oriented, some might be about the late medieval period, and some might be thematically focused, and students may repeat the course when the content changes. (We have departmental course descriptions that give a better sense of the specific course and its expectations.) And then, starting with the next time I teach the class, I’ll start developing different variations.

Now, here’s where you come in. First of all, what do you think of this general plan? Am I missing any possible significant repercussions? I don’t think enrollment will be an issue, since most of our students pick courses by a) what’s required (in this case, that means pre-1800 lit), b) what fits their schedule, c) where the class is located, and d) who is teaching the course, so no matter what specific topic or area I’m doing in a given semester, I’m likely to get more or less the same students. I think. But is there anything else I’m not taking into account?

Second, if you were to do an ASNaC course, what Norse and Celtic literature would you assign? And are there good secondary works (guides, companions, or histories) that you have found useful for yourself or your students? One of the things, ideally, that I’d like to do in each of these revamped courses is not only give students more experience with the primary texts of a given period or genre, but also make some room for both historical contexts and the literary scholarship of the field. I’m especially ill-informed on the Norse and Celtic side of the ASNaC trinity.

Suggestions welcome!

>Do you hear what I hear?

>When I was on the top of the the hillside perch of Castle Carreg Cennen in Wales (pictures of it in this post), I made a little video with my camera not for what you can see, but what you hear. In that video you can hear sheep baa-ing and you can see them move in the field some 400 feet below. You also hear, incidentally, the motorway in the distance and the air moving past my compact digital camera’s miniscule microphone.

I wanted to post the video for you, but the direct Blogger video posting tool won’t allow over 100 MB, and my clip is just over that (and I don’t have any editing program to cut it, alas). It’s just as well, since listening to sheep baa isn’t very exciting, and you don’t really have to see and hear the clip to get what I want to say about it.

At the time we were there visiting the castle, someone remarked that the sound of the sheep was the sound of medieval power — the lord of the castle could look around below him and not only see what he controlled, but also hear it as well, maybe even hear every word spoken down there. At the time, I thought, “Hm. Yes.”

But later, upon reflection, I thought, “Wait. No.” If Carreg Cennen was ever a bustling castle, even if it only served defensive purposes, and not as a full time residence (and unlike Kidwelly, it had no town grown up around it), it would have been full of its own noises. Those noises might have easily drowned out the sound of sheep just as surely as modern mechanized noises could. After all, where I stood when I shot that video was where the former outer ward lay. In the outer ward would have been the stables, blacksmiths’ and armourers’ workshops, the lime kiln (its ruins are still there) and all sorts of general hustle and bustle. Would you have been able to hear the sheep above that clamor?

I’ve been a little obsessed with the sounds of the Middle Ages lately, not in any way that I’m going to write about it professionally (which is probably good, because I hear Claire Sponsler *is* writing about it), but just in a musing sort of way that I sometimes bring up in class. I think some of my students assume that the Middle Ages was a quiet and still place — like Castle Carreg Cennen today — so I like to draw their attention to noisiness in the literature, whether it’s noise being depicted in literature (the jingling of the bells on the Monk’s bridle in the Canterbury Tales, for instance, both described and imitated by the poetry), or the kinds of environmental noises one might encounter while experiencing medieval literature such as the York plays (church bells, the pageants at the stations before and after the one where they were watching, other playgoers, etc.), or the noise of the literature itself as it was declaimed or read aloud. This interest was spurred long ago by my interest in drama, but also by the “Medieval Noise” cluster of Exemplaria (Autumn 2004, no longer available online, alas), which included an introduction by Jeffrey J. Cohen with a title, “Kyte oute yugliment: An Introduction to Medieval Noise,” taken from one of my favorite moments in medieval drama, where the Herod of the York plays breaks down into utter nonsense in the face of Christ’s silence.

But only recently has the interest risen to the level of obsession. And lately I’ve been thinking of medieval sound as ghosts. One of my friends suggested I might mean echoes, but I really mean ghosts. Sound travels in waves, right? So once those sheep baas reached me up on the crest of Carreg Cennen, the sheep who made them might no longer be baaing. They could, theoretically, have uttered their last baa, and I might be hearing it in past tense, so to speak. And so when I or my students read Chaucer aloud in my class, and read of that Monk’s bridle “Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd,” even though our reconstruction of Middle English is an approximation at best, there’s a sense of a very old sound traveling across time and space, perhaps distorted by the distance it has traveled, but reaching my students and me nonetheless, haunting us in a way.

But it’s not just medieval literature that’s ghostly. In a sense, all poetry consists of ghosts, for all poetry deals in some way with sound (well, good poetry does) and asks to be read aloud. And having already been written, each subsequent reading, even by the poet him- or herself, is a bit of the past coming forth to the listener in the present. Every reading of a poem is a little bit haunted.

What do you think?

>Why I teach medieval literature

>I know I’m coming really late to the game in this meme (which, btw, is more like a real meme in some ways than the things that are called memes, since Dr. Crazy had no intention of starting a meme when she wrote the original post that inspired it), but I think I may have something new to contribute. I admit I haven’t read all the contributions made to this discussion (here‘s a list of links to a lot of them), but I read Dr. Crazy’s post when it was new, and I’ve read all the medievalists’ and early modernists’ responses, including New Kid’s contribution on why she teaches history. (I’ve also read the kerfuffle that resulted from Dr. Crazy’s post and the meme it became, but I’m not linking to that.) New Kid is the person who tagged me to respond to this discussion, and since she singled out people who do work in pre-modern eras, I’ve specified my topic as why I teach medieval literature in particular. And along the way I’ll probably also be answering, at least indirectly, a question Neophyte posed long ago about whether those of us who study the past think of it in terms of alterity and difference, or if we see correspondence and connection with the present.

Now, when the MLA held the panel that inspired Dr. Crazy’s original post, I’m sure their topic question – “Why do we teach literature” – really meant something more like “Why is literature a worthy subject of study in higher education?” But I’m actually going to take the question a bit at its face value, not because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to read subtext and its implications, but because in answering the question as why *I* personally teach literature – in this case, medieval literature – I also have a point to make about why students should at least have the option of studying it (note: not “should study it” – I’m not proscribing a canon here) and what I think the study of medieval literature has to offer students and teachers alike. So I’m taking a question that originally implied a desire for universal answers and giving personal ones instead because I think one of the strengths of literary studies is an aspect that is often mistakenly depicted as one of its weaknesses: its “subjectivity” vs. the supposed “objectivity” of other disciplines.

It might be surprising to some that I find personal value in teaching the oldest literature in English since it is supposedly the farthest removed from my personal experiences. But I do. And the first and foremost way in which I experience that value can be expressed in a single word: pleasure. (You really have to say it like the Scotsman in Chariots of Fire: “God made for a purrrrpose, and when I rrrrun, I feel his playzhurrrrrrre.” Hee!) All joking aside, pleasure is serious stuff. It’s part of the very social fabric of obligations to others: please, if you please, s’il vous plait, RSVP. And long ago I realized I could not live a life with a job or a career that didn’t at least afford the opportunity of deep pleasure on a semi-regular basis. That’s not to say that my life is all fun and games; pleasure is distinctly different from mere fun. In my universe a roller coaster ride is fun; but a marathon is intensely pleasurable while only rarely fun. Being grad director frequently drives me nuts, but it’s also deeply pleasurable. I found pleasure in the long years and hard work it took to finish my degree, get this job, turn my dissertation into a book, and so forth. And I find tremendous pleasure in the difficulty of medieval literature. Chaucer has perhaps gotten easier for me over the years, although there is still much to puzzle over (Melibee, for instance). But much of medieval literature is dazzlingly hard. Piers Plowman, for instance. Every time I read it, it’s like working through it for the first time again. And I’ve yet to figure out how to teach it, which is even more daunting than trying to teach it to myself. But I will keep trying, and I will take pleasure in the process.

Medieval literature is not something I simply “got” on some instinctive, sympathetic level of my imagination, the way I “got” Virginia Woolf, for example. I never felt, upon reading medieval literature, some instantaneous fellow-feeling. To use a word that’s a new favorite of students and Entertainment Weekly, I never found medieval literature “relatable.” (OK, not never; I “get” both Troilus and Criseyde on some ordinary level, for instance. I have badly dumped lovers and been badly dumped in return. But I don’t think that’s really what that poem is about.) But when I first encountered medieval literature as an undergraduate, it astonished and stunned me with its weird and wonderful beauty (really I should work in “wlonc” there, shouldn’t I?). Take the words “weird,” “wonderful,” and “wlonc.” All three are medieval, all three are native to English, going back deep into its very beginnings. But the first two have morphed in meaning more than once over the centuries, and the last disappeared before English became “Modern.” Where did it go? Why did it go? And how did we get from the Old English “wyrd” (roughly, fortune, fate, or destiny – but not quite any of those exactly) to our meaning of strange and outlandish. As an undergraduate I wanted answers to those questions not so much in a linguistic sense, but in a broader, more philosophical sense: where do words go when they die? Can the dead speak through them or are they rendered mute? Can we reach them through their words, or are we always “hearing” them through translators and interpreters, even if we are those interpreters? Were these writers using weird words essentially the same as me – humans, story tellers, imaginative creatures – or did the differences in their language, major and minor, make them a different people?

So in the beginning I was attracted to the difference, the alterity that the Middle Ages offered me. And I found pleasure in that difference. After all, why would I want to read about people or the works of people who were just like me? But that’s where I suppose I am also weird, because it seems many people like literature that’s “relatable.” And so, in the end, ironically, I guess I do identify with medieval literature: we’re both weird.

And I want students to see that: that I’m weird and that I take pleasure in weirdness. (Yes, here’s where I finally turn to why I teach medieval literature, rather than why I teach it.) I want them to see that pleasure and discovery and connection and understanding can take place in the oddest of moments, in the most unexpected of subject matters. I want them to understand that the struggle to understand can make the understanding all the more valuable and pleasurable. I want them to have the opportunity to break out of their comfortable habits and to explore what for them is uncharted territory. I want them to find their own pleasures.

And that’s really what it’s about for me: letting students find their pleasures, follow their bliss, discover what matters to them, learn what they’re passionate about. And that pleasure isn’t about some narrow sense of middle class success – it’s not about merely finding a job or being a recognizable label of a professional (doctor, lawyer, engineer) – unless that’s where your pleasure lies. And again, I don’t mean fun or contentment or entertainment. I mean deep, sustaining, satisfying pleasure. I want them to know that there are people in the world who get giddy over the third line in the Reeve’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales – “diverse folk diversely they seyde” (it does what it says! It marks linguistic variation in the two possible ways of accenting “diverse” – the French way or the English way! It shows a French loan word with an Old English suffix in “diversely”! And all this marking the start of a tale that will showcase not one but *two* regional and generational varieties of 14th century English! It works on so many levels!) – and also that there was once a 14th century poet who probably worked hard on that line and was likely mighty pleased with it himself, and who also noticed how various and full of wonder his own world was, and who very obviously also thought about the possibility of “diverse folk” responding “diversely” to a story (in this case, the Miller’s Tale), and presumably finding a diversity of meanings and values in it. And weirdly, wonderfully, he seems to have anticipated us in a way, sitting in our classrooms responding to the Reeve’s Tale and others in ways that he may or may not have anticipated or intended.

And therein lies one of the many values of teaching medieval literature in particular: Medieval writers often seem intensely aware the presence and practices of readers across time, and the differences and diversities of texts and readers. Medieval texts hail readers across time and space: “Hwaet!” opens Beowulf – listen! Lo! Pay attention! “Herkneth!” – listen! – say too many Middle English texts to count. And Chaucer invites the reader into the Canterbury pilgrimage when his narrator-persona says that he and the other pilgrims made an agreement to get an early start in the morning, “as I yow devyse” – “as I (will) tell you.” And these writers and others freely adapt foreign, ancient, and pagan texts for their purposes – for “out of olde bookes cometh new science,” says Chaucer (a quote I should have on the top of every syllabus, come to think of it) – but also worry and puzzle self-consciously and openly over those differences and what they mean in the “now” of the medieval writer’s world, and what they might also, therefore, mean for future readers. And so we do in our modern classroom. In mine at least, I try to give equal time to puzzling out how a medieval reader might have responded to a given text – and teaching students how we judge such things through reading texts closely, by reading even more texts, or by learning what we can about their reception, etc. – but also to how we respond, and whether those responses are shared or divergent, and why. I also at least give some time and space to critical history, at least in a nutshell, to demonstrate the diversity of readings between “now” and “then.” Also, when my students try to make medieval texts too much a part of their own world, I call them out on their collapsing of difference. (Quick example: if a student tells me Criseyde is worried that Troilus will “disappoint his family” if he elopes with her, I say, no, she worries he’ll bring shame on his father, King Priam, and then ask students what the difference is.) By their very nature, medieval texts ask us to think about the connections between then and now, to raise the possibility of communication across time and space, even as they offer up their differences. They call out and say, “Hwaet/listen, what do you think of this story which I yow devyse?”

Of course, not every student hears the call. Not every student listens or cares to listen. And that’s fine with me. Diverse folk have diverse tastes. I want them to find their own pleasures, too, and I offer mine – and through mine, the pleasures medieval writers had – as merely a model, as a possibility for inquiry, study, and deep, satisfying pleasure. I offer it as something that’s both highly subjective – after all, what’s my pleasure might be your pain! – but also as something that takes students outside of themselves and their worlds. One of the most basic lessons that every student ideally should learn in college (though I know plenty don’t, or else they forget that they have) is that not everyone thinks like you. But that’s a slightly harder lesson to learn at a regional university than one that draws its students from across the country and the globe. (That’s not to say that everyone in a region thinks the same, but the differences might be less underscored when most of your classmates talk like you and have the same local references as you.) And so in an institution like mine, I think humanities and social science classes in which students encounter lives unlike their own are especially valuable for that process of forming the self that college often can be – and, I think, ideally should be. (And let’s not discount the difference that I, myself, offer standing there in front of the classroom: a nearly 40-something woman who values the life of the mind, who finds deep pleasure in it, who has a happy personal life, who did not feel it was imperative to marry and have kids in her twenties, who forged an independent and pleasurable life on her own terms.) But on a more mundane level, the humanities and social sciences, along with the sciences and the professional schools are all important for offering students a choice of visions, a choice of ways of being, a choice of pleasures. How can a student really decide who s/he wants to be if the choices are limited?

And so I teach medieval literature here at Rust Belt University and I will continue to do so even if we should become Rust Belt Institute of Technology (RibBIT? Croak U? Hee!), as seems to be in the works. If that happens, I’ll teach medieval literature of the body, medieval literature of the natural environment, medieval melancholia, “Medieval Doctors, Alchemists, Magicians, and Wizards,” or whatever I can to keep doing it. I do it now and I’ll keep doing it in the future to offer my students a view that is both broad and deep, that offers them possibilities they might not have otherwise known – possibilities for thinking, being, connecting, and living, possibilities for pleasure in unexpected places.