Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I should have known better...

Yes, I was a glutton -- three medieval classes in one term. I should add, I'm teaching three medieval classes with at least two different textbooks, so I am teaching some of the same texts in different translations (as if conveying the complexities of different parts of the Middle Ages were not hard enough!).

I can't tell if it's more perplexing to teach the same text at the same time with very different translations and aims (medieval lit for non-majors v. gender in medieval lit for sophomore majors) or the same text at different times -- so I always catch myself saying, "Did we already talk about this? No? Oh, well -- let me explain..."

My third class of the day -- the upper division one -- bears the brunt of this exhaustion and inevitable confusion. I'm always making them laugh as I get stuck stammering on a word, because suddenly I've lost the one following it as my mind races to check:

1) is this the right text?

2) have we already covered this?

3) am I confused because I said something similar in the previous class?

4) or was it in this class last week?

5) and now they're all staring at my sputtering and thinking I'm crazy!

I generally recover quickly (I can always vamp on just about any medieval topic for a fair space of time until I recall where we're supposed to be) but I'm beginning to think the Medieval Texts on Film class thinks they've signed on with a lunatic. Fair enough.

Nonetheless, it's better to have this embarrassment of riches (teaching the field I love and have been trained for) than to be stuck with the dread thousand year survey. In my last position, I had to cover the class that lumped together everything from early Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry to transitional Anglo-Norman texts to Chaucer and the late Middle Ages to Elizabethan drama to the English Civil War to Restoration drama and the roots of early journalism. In a semester!

It's like having a huge banquet and a half hour in which to eat it. You can cram your mouth with stuff, but you won't digest a lot of it and you won't even get to taste some of the signature dishes (I am so not going to teach Spenser! Just not qualified). You get the academic equivalent of heartburn.

Why do it? Often it springs from a desire to teach 'foundations', the explicit recognition that all writers stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before. But it also devalues those foundations with the suggestion that a mere semester of running through that thousand years will sufficiently acquaint students with the complexities of these wildly varying texts and cultures. The often unspoken assumption is that the students can then be ready to move on to the 'important' (i.e. post-1800) texts -- argh! Medieval literature is not just 'background' for modern literature.

2 comments:

kmiddleton said...

I love this, because even when I'm teaching totally different courses (hello, teen film vs. the big fat novel), I run into the same problem. Did we discuss performativity in here, or am I hallucinating?

Meanwhile, I'm fascinated by your reading of the enorme survey. Since I'm poised on the other end of the literature teleology, I always imagined that the emphasis is on the importance of early literatures---as in "you haven't really gotten Literature until you've read the foundations." Now I have to rethink everything. Thanks a LOT.

I wish some students would weigh in on this. What I hear, anecdotally only, from some is their frustration with the excerpts that they get in surveys, as opposed to the full-length texts they get in our current topics courses. Is that also the plight of the thousand year survey?

K. A. Laity said...

I think on the positive side, this confusion arises from a coherence in our teaching philosophies, because you're right -- I'm as likely to have those moments when I'm *not* teaching the same topics (though perhaps a bit less frequently). This surprises me because I don't really think of myself as someone with a coherent teaching philosophy (and in fact tried to discourage a student who recently suggested using me as a model of how to teach -- gaah!).

I would like to hear some student opinions, too. I think I will force them from the upper divisions course -- what else is a captive audience for?

I do end up doing a mash-up of survey and depth in the lower division medieval classes, because I still have about 700 years to cover and the early part is so very different from the later part and I have to teach a lot of history, cultural context and highlight themes that inevitably get taken down as notes to "define" the period and fall far short of the complexities of reality.

But what else can we do?

Our students are not our peers. They are not going to have the understanding of the periods or topics we're teaching that would allow them to have the kind of conversations we long to have. Yet sometimes I think we have unrealistic expectations in that direction when we should be cheered to prick curiosity in them.

I think all we can do is take them up to the ledge and shove them over. They have to fly on their own. Some won't. So it goes.