Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How much medieval is too much?

Gosh, has it really been two full weeks since my last post? Guess grading jail lasted longer than I thought. And, of course, I'm not really out yet. In fact, I just picked up an additional class. Yes, three weeks before the semester ends. A colleague of mine is unable to finish out the semester due to illness, so I have to teach one of his classes for the next three weeks. And grade all the resulting papers. On the positive side, the college is compensating me. I think I'll receive almost two hundred bucks for what will almost certainly be in the neighborhood of forty hours work. Almost minimum wage! And people say that the administration doesn't really care about the faculty...

I've been teaching for about fifteen years now, so I've become pretty proficient at finding ways to avoid grading. One of my favorites involves planning for future classes. At the planning phase, a class is all potential; it can still be perfect. Once you add actual students into the mix (and once I enter the room for the first time), that potential has largely been sapped. I always enjoy teaching, mind you, but it's not nearly as fun as planning the class.

I remember when I was in graduate school, a good friend and I used to prep for the job interviews we hoped to get when we finished our Ph.D.s by answering the "dream class" question. You know the one. If you could design a class without worrying about how it fits into a larger curriculum, what would it look like? I remember dreaming about classes devoted to medieval expressions of time or to ridiculously specific timeframes (Old English Prose: 975-1008). Teaching at a community college consigns such dreams firmly to the realm of fantasy, of course, but I still enjoy planning new courses or finding ways to significantly overhaul old ones.

Which brings me to a question I deal with almost every year. One of the classes I teach is a standard British Lit survey. I actually teach both halves of this sequence, but I spend a lot more time thinking about the first semester (Medieval through 18th Century) than the second (1800 to the present). [NOTE: someday I'll post a rant about the way this sequence is broken up. Let's see, there's approximately 1400 years of British literary history. Obviously we should spend one semester on the first 1200 and the second semester on the last 200. Seriously, WTF?] What I struggle with each time I plan this class is how much time to spend on medieval literature. On the one hand, I think that survey classes should be designed to meet the students' needs, not the instructor's. If the point of the class is to survey British literature from its earliest days to the end of the 18th century, then the texts chosen should not focus unduly on one period but should...well, survey the overall range of periods. Sure, I especially like medieval literature, but that shouldn't be the guiding principle for the course. On the other hand, I have a certain amount of expertise in medieval lit, expertise that I don't have in the other periods studied in the class. Okay, so I work at a community college, and everyone is generalist at a CC, but surely the students could benefit more from my knowledge of things medieval than from my relative ignorance concerning Restoration Drama. Right?

So how much medieval literature should be included in a Brit Lit survey class taught by a medievalist? All the mainstream anthologies divide the big period into three (Medieval, Early Modern, 18th Century), though in terms of page count the medieval period gets short shrift, probably about 20% of the total book. Chronologically, of course, the medieval period (which I'm defining as approximately 700-1500) represents about 75% of the overall time period covered by the class. In the past, I've devoted as much as 50% and as little as 30% of the course to medieval stuff. Then there's the related question of what to cover in the medieval period. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist, but even I have difficulty justifying very much beyond Beowulf and a handful of other poems ("Caedmon's Hymn," "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," etc.) in a class like this. Still, I don't want to fall into the normal pattern of teaching just Beowulf and Chaucer and saying that I've covered the medieval period.

I'm putting this question out to what Richard Scott Nokes has recently called the "blog-o-web-net-sphere-thingy." Those of you who teach British Lit surveys: how much medieval literature do you cover in the class? And, if you don't mind sharing, what works do you normally include?

10 comments:

Michelle said...

I'm not an English teacher but if this is BRITISH lit (rather than English lit) then why not add some Latin works. After all most medieval works from Britain were in Latin. Something from Bede or hagiography. The Dream of the Rood or something like Judith might give them a taste of what medieval lit is like. How about part of the Life of Alfred the Great or something by Alfred?

Prof. de Breeze said...

Michelle,

Good point. Latin does get neglected in these classes, probably because the classes are taught in English departments. I have, like many others, included at least small bits form Bede (e.g., the story of Caedmon or King Edwin's conversion) in the course before, but I'll look at others as well. Might be interesting to compare Latin hagiography (say, the Life of Cuthbert) with English hagiography (Aelfric's Life of Oswald), but I worry that doing so would be more appropriate for a Medieval Literature class than for a true survey.

Michelle said...

Maybe Bede's story of Aethelthryth from the History with the poem vs. Aelfric's Life of Aethelthryth? Or for that matter Bede's chapters on Oswald vs Aelfric's Life of Oswald. I guess the Guthlac poems would be good examples of early English verse.

highlyeccentric said...

If you're looking at Anglo-Saxon works, I don't think you can go past Dream of the Rood (makes for a great heroic comparison with Beowulf or one of the elegaic poems).

Otherwise... what about Julian of Norwich? Selections from Piers Ploughman? SGGK in translation, if not the original?

e said...
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Prof. de Breeze said...

HE: Thanks for the comment. I've taught "Dream of the Rood" several times before in the class, though I have to say it's not one of my favorites. I always expect students to be surprised by the martial imagery applied to Christ, and they almost never are. I also usually include SGGK (in translation; this class is for non-majors at a rural community college, after all). I rarely teach Julian, though I do sometimes throw in Margery Kempe, just for fun. :)

But perhaps I should clarify the question. I love getting the suggestions, but really I'm especially interested in what other medievalists do when faced with a class such as this, particularly one intended for non-majors. How do you balance your own interests in the period with the students' need to cover British literature in a broader sense?

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Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I gave up on coverage long ago. My latest survey is "Myths of Britain": from Beowulf to the Tempest, with stops at Dream of the Rood, Wanderer, Marie de France, Mandeville, SGGK, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Its been a fun course all about slooooow reading.

Prof. de Breeze said...

JJC: The course sounds great. Can I take it? I'm not, by the way, aiming for full coverage; my surveys now include about half as many texts as they did ten years ago. I'll admit, though, that I feel a weird kind of professional guilt if I leave out too much. I hate teaching Milton (and my students hate reading him), so a few years ago I started leaving him off the syllabus altogether. After a while, though, I put him back on because he's...well, Milton. I know that my students, who are not English majors for the most part, will not suffer much from not having read Paradise Lost, but I was tortured by dreams in which Milton threw me down to hell for my impudence. :)

Marye the Quene said...

I always liked the works of Venerable Bede, glad to hear you still teach him. Keep up the good work professor.

Marye the Quene