Awkward confession time: I don’t think our subject is vitally important

16th c image showing the doctors of the university of Paris

16th c image

A snippet from my intro class this semester:

Amy: So! Anyone want to volunteer to say why you’re here? I mean, other than you need a medieval seminar to fill your requirements. Why this one?

Students: *awkward silence*

Mature Student: Well, I’ve studied literature before, but never this period or language and I think it’s really interesting!

Amy: So do I! Excellent! Anyone else?

Students: *awkward silence*

Amy: Well I know I have a couple of medieval repeat offenders here. Maybe the rest of you are here for timetable reasons or something. I’ve decided I’m teaching Old English language and saints’ lives because I think they’re fun, and if you’re here because of the timetable, I guess you’re stuck with it!

Students: *awkward laughter*

That’s it, though. I think it’s fun! I have other useful aims connected to the medieval curriculum and the broader second/third year program in our department, but the fundamental reason I’m teaching Aelfric and the poetic Judith and not something else is that I think they’re fun. And I want students to have the opportunity to enjoy this particular kind of fun – especially since these texts are not on the survey course for our period.

I then asked the students what they expect to learn in this or any seminar in our department and they looked blank again. And there’s no point pretending I devise curricula in response to that section of the first class – I already have the semester plan in front of me. So I talked them through the things I prioritised in devising this seminar: close reading skills; critical analysis especially using (new) historicism and gender theory; and awareness of a particular period and genre as selected by me because I thought it was fun. I explained that I plan to use translation as a route to close reading, because that’s what really taught me to close read so I hope it’ll work for them too.

Thing is, all of those skills (except the translation bit) I taught in my last seminar and I will teach in future seminars. Historical awareness is not a skill our students master well, so it will be on every course I teach. Even if in my shiftless post-PhD future I end up teaching seminars for contemporary lit or something. Gender studies I think is fun, and an important framework for thinking about the world at large, so it’ll be in most of my curricula (although not next year’s OE class, on current plans). Close reading and critical analysis are just how we roll (and not that different to primary source analysis and historiography, either).

I think my courses are fun. I design them for, I hope, maximum effectiveness at those three goals, although what works for me and some of my students may not work for all students or other teachers. But I don’t think my stuff, or even my period, is super special somehow. I’m not even sure I think mandatory period surveys are a crucial component of a literature degree (although my faculty clearly does: all language departments are set up this way, and Romance language departments even require introductory Latin courses!).

Quote from Avenue Q: Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge, have earned me this useless degreeI do think English students learn, or should learn, useful skills relating to close analysis of texts. I don’t think those skills are any more useful in a not-uni context than, say, primary source analysis learned in History classes. I think literature is an art, and like the study of Renaissance portraiture it’s a worthwhile exercise to examine the hows and whys and what-effects and who-fors in order to appreciate that art fully. Moreover, writing a lot of analytical essays about anything will teach you some basic research skills, hopefully some structuring techniques, and ideally clarity of writing style. Those are hugely useful skills. I worked in the public service, I’ve seen how astonished people were that 21-year-old me could write in the active voice and integrate multiple sources. I learned to do that in English and History classes (and from blogging, to be honest), but I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t have learned similar skills in Arabic and Islamic Studies and Religious Studies, had I chosen differently in second year.

On a broader social level, I think a society should have a good mix of educated people in it. Having people around who know about Renaissance portraits and people who know about early Islam and people who know about Chaucer is, I reckon, quite advantageous to a society as a whole (if nothing else, somebody needs to periodically remind the world at large that ISIL is not medieval). I just don’t see that my patch is any more important than the rest of them. I’m not even convinced my patch should be mandatory for English lit students, even if that periodised curriculum structure is what keeps my job in existence!

So if my students do not master translating Old English, the world will not end. If they forget everything they research about Anglo-Saxon England, but I teach them something about gender theory that they can apply to some other class or context, then that’s a victory as far as I’m concerned. If they improve at close reading, at focusing in on a passage and pulling it apart, but they hate every text I set – well that sucks. I was hoping it’d be fun.

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