Literary Hindsight: Teaching Medieval Love and Violence

At a Kalamazoo ICMS roundtable titled “Teaching Violence and Trauma in the Premodern Classroom (A Roundtable),” the question arose: How do we get our students to understand that the violence and horrors depicted in the literary and historical texts are not necessarily representative of the realities of the time?

I was reminded of an exercise I had done with my students when we read Lanval, focusing on the literary representation of romantic love versus the reality. I mentioned it, and (omigod!!) Tara Mendola (one of the panelists) tweeted out my idea.

I had written up this lesson as a resource for the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study a while ago, so I’ve decided to post it now in this context. The lesson plan, with some notes, is below:


Lanval Lesson Plan

Pre-class: Transition from Anglo-Saxon, brief overview of Anglo-Norman language and culture, mention of term “courtly love”

Class session:

  1. Ten-minute writing exercise with two questions:
    1. “Describe “romantic love” according to medieval literature (using the text we’ve read so far, Lanval.)”
    2. “Describe “romantic love” according to your own (contemporary) understanding.”
      1. Note: I passed out half-papers with one question on each side. I did not direct the students to one question first, rather letting them decide which to answer first. Some didn’t realize there were two questions until their classmates told them to turn the paper over. I am curious what effect the order of questions has on the way students answer…
  2. PowerPoint: factual information about medieval marriage; explanation of the idealized system of courtly love; explanation of chivalry and its development; images from manuscripts depicting tournaments, chivalric behavior, etc.
  3. Group activity: class divided into three groups. Each one assigned a character (Lanval, Guinevere, fairy queen).
    1. Instructions: identify lines that describe their assigned character, copy out those lines, and then discuss the character.
  4. Full-class discussion: beginning with character analyses, moving into discussions of gender roles, loyalty, lordship, courtly love, etc.

Post-class: Blog post assignment:

Hindsight on modern romance: After we’ve read and discussed Marie de France’s Lanval in the context of courtly love and chivalry, you know now that love as portrayed in medieval literature often does not resemble the realities of medieval love. Choose a contemporary genre of literature or film (romance, Young Adult, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller), and think about how love and romance are portrayed in that genre. Imagine you’re a student of literature or film in the year 2500, studying the literature of the 21st century. What conclusions would you draw about love and romance based on the genre you’ve chosen to analyze? How does this match up with what you (the real you) know about love and romance in contemporary real life? (There’s no need to be personal, but you may use personal details.) 250-500 words.

Student-Teaching

One of the great things about engaging as a student in the very academic endeavor I teach is that one enriches the other. As I lead my students through the process of writing, I am engaged in the very same process under my own teacher’s guidance. And if I pay careful attention, I can see my frustrations and anxieties matching my students, and I can harness my experience with each perspective to inform and enrich the other.

This renewed realization (which is kind of a truism, isn’t it) was prompted most recently by a burst of inspiration I had as I was forced to write and produce pages for my dissertation workshop to read.

After my orals had been passed and my prospectus approved, it took me a long time to start writing the dissertation in any real way. Part of this was due to life events that I could not have predicted or prevented, but part of it was paralyzing fear of getting started.

I wanted a roadmap. I wanted to draw up a schedule, I wanted to know which chapter I would tackle first, I wanted to set myself deadlines.

My method of teaching the writing process to my students includes moments when I refuse to give them guidance.

I’ve previously written on this blog about my struggle to balance broad prompts (which invite imagination and passion) with specific prompts (which provide direction and clear expectations). But even when the prompts are very specific, students want to know where exactly to start, what exactly to write, how exactly to structure the essay. Up to a certain point, I of course provide that guidance. But eventually, if students continue to display anxiety and a desire for hand-holding, I stop answering their questions, and I say, “just start writing – the answers will come to you as you write.”

By this point in the writing/teaching process, I would have already discussed the concepts of writing-to-learn, of drafting, of finding out what you think by writing about it, etc. But the time always comes for them to dive in and explore, discover the joy (and/or nail-biting anxiety) of this all on their own.

Often students will say, “But I have so little to say about this! I can say everything I have to say in three sentences! I can’t write a full 3-page draft!” Start writing anyway, I tell them, feigning a lack of mercy.

I know that they will definitely get more than three sentences, and that when they give their draft to their classmates for peer review (and to me for comments), their readers will have questions and will point out where their “very obvious” statements need expansion and explanation.

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t have the audacity to ask my advisor to lay out the roadmap for me. But I wanted to ask for that.

So instead, I drew up plans and went to his office, and presented them to him in hopes that he would revise the plan for me and tell me what I should read and which specific parts I should start with… He didn’t. (My advisor, by the way, has legendary amounts of patience.)

So I spent time wondering: Should I start with the introduction, because that will set up the framework for the whole project? Maybe I should start with the chapter on fables, because that genre is the most didactic (of the genres I’m working with) and that would allow me to dive into the historical documents about education as well? Or maybe I should start with the chapter on romance, because that’s the genre I’m most familiar with and can knock out a first draft fairly quickly? Or, maybe the opposite – I should start with dream visions, because I know least about them, so the bulk of work I need to do would be at the beginning of my writing, and I could get to romance at the end, when I just want to finish already?

(As it happens, it’s a good thing I didn’t start with dream visions, because they are gone from the dissertation, cut after the chapters on fable and romance expanded into two separate chapters for each, kind of like an amoeba growing so big and then splitting into two amoebas through asexual reproduction / binary fission – hello, ninth grade biology! – and you can’t tell which is the parent and which is the child. Ooh, I like that!)

Eventually, I had to write something to hand in to the workshop. So I wrote some pages for the chapter on romance. I presented them to the group, got feedback, and had some new ideas about the overall project.

For my next submission, I did some writing that would be part of the introduction. It was full of half-formed ideas, I didn’t include the citations and references I needed (I wrote down things like “add Orme’s thing here,” but I didn’t take the time at this point to actually go check what Orme says about it).

Again, the feedback from the dissertation workshop caused my mind to go wild with explosions of ideas and possibilities, and I revised half of those pages for my third submission, expanding on some ideas that I hadn’t fully explored in the previous draft. And yet again, the feedback from the group helped me rethink the structure of the introduction, which helped me rethink the overall structure of the entire dissertation, and now I’m roaring to go again…

And it hit me: I had been acting exactly like my students, dragging my feet because I couldn’t see how the end product would come from the material and ideas I had in the moment. And the methods that worked were exactly the same as the advice I give my students: just start writing the damn thing.

An amazing aspect of the dissertation workshop is also getting to see others’ works-in-progress, to watch their drafts becoming light-years clearer with each revision. We often don’t see that on a graduate or professional level – we’ll look over friends’ and colleagues’ drafts when they’re confident enough to share it, but not before that. In this workshop format, though, we by necessity share drafts that are, as Anne Lamott says, shitty. We all expect our undergraduate students to produce shitty first drafts, and we encourage that as part of the writing process. But it is so good to see graduate-level versions of shitty first drafts! (Sorry, friends, but you get to see my shitty first drafts too, so…)

I’m not teaching any college courses this semester, but I plan to take this renewed realization with me when I plan my next composition syllabus.

Image: the first and last page of my latest draft, with comments from the workshop scribbled all over them (deliberately blurred!)

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Race and Religion in The King of Tars: An Undergraduate Lesson

This is a pretty cut-and-dry account of a lesson I planned  and how it went. I’m sharing because 1) I’m proud of it; 2) I think it might be useful to others to see the overall lesson and the twists and turns of my reasoning for each step; and 3) it’s a good way to force myself to actually take notes on what I do… 

After what’s been described by some as the garbage-fire summer of medieval studies, I decided to switch out one text on my syllabus for The King of Tars, a medieval text about a Christian princess who is forced to marry a Saracen sultan. I usually mention race in medieval texts when we talk about Marie de France’s description of the fairy queen in Lanval, and in reference to some lines in Chaucer. But I wanted to foreground discussions of racial and religious in/tolerance more clearly, and this text was the way to do it.

I prefaced the two-day discussion with a heads-up about what we’ll focus on in the text, but I gave no further direction than that. I had switched the text after the semester had already started, so my students were aware of the change and they knew why I had made the change.

[The King of Tars is not available from any publisher in undergrad-friendly text, but thankfully Pamela Yee had painstakingly translated and glossed the entire text for her students and graciously allowed me to use her translation. I have relied on the Norton Anthology for this class until now, but I intend to “resist the canon” a lot more in future sections I teach.]

On the first day discussing the text, I began class with a few slides to ground the discussion in the urgency the field medieval studies feels now: to directly address race, namely the alt-right / Nazis’ coopting of medieval symbols and imagery and the inaccuracy of the claim to a “pure” white past.

I showed them screenshots of Twitter posts, beginning with this, which delighted them:

I also gave them a brief overview, explaining that the idea of “race” developed long after the Middle Ages. So although the text definitely refers to whiteness and blackness, we need to dig into the text to figure out how it’s being portrayed and viewed, rather than relying on contemporary ideas about race.

After this presentation, we reviewed major plot points, and then moved into group work.

From the start of the semester, I’d begun each class with a ten-minute writing exercise in which I asked students to write down: one quote from the text; one comment about the text; one question about the text.

This time, I asked them to pair up and to find four quotes from the text, one in each of the following categories: race; religion; women; children. I acknowledged that these are broad categories, and I said that I’m not giving any further explanation for them because I want each pair to interpret the four topics as they see fit.

As I rotated among the pairs, many asked me to help them figure out which category a specific quote belonged to. “We want to quote this line, but it could fit into either the women category or the race category,” etc. I told them to think about which category they want to put it in – what interests them about this quote? Of course, there will be overlap among categories, but I want them each to choose one category for each quote.

Once each pair had chosen four quotes, I asked them to write one of their quotes (with line citations) on the board. I had written the four categories on the board and drawn lines separating them into columns. I stood back as they each chose one quote and wrote it in the appropriate category.

The Result: When everyone was done writing on the board, there were two quotes each for the categories of women, children, and race. Under religion, there were ten quotes. (With 29 students in the class, this means at least a few pairs wrote more than one quote, but I’m not complaining!)

I asked the class to look at the board and think about what this text is about, based on the quotes they focused on: is it about race, or is it about religion? Of course, they all agreed that this text is about religion.

We moved into an intense discussion about representations of race and religion in the text, particularly the way the sultan becomes white when he converts.

A few students asked about the confusing portrayal of Islam in the text (Mohammed as a god or saint rather than a prophet, Juipter and Apollo and idols as part of what appears to be a pantheon of gods), and we talked about how the text calls the sultan a “pagan,” a “heathen,” a “Saracen,” and the way the text uses these terms to refer to both non-Christians and non-whites without really allowing for the possibility of a black Christian or a white non-Christian. We discussed the text’s focus on presenting the sultan as different, as non-Christian, not on presenting an accurate portrayal of Islam.

We left off by the end of class with a number of questions that students posed about the text as they began to think in these terms, not least of which was: Aren’t the Christians as bad as the Saracens by the end, when they kill everyone?

Before wrapping up for the day, I handed out copies of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (recommended by a few colleagues – thanks!) We read the introduction together, wading past references to de Man and Foucault to get to the undergrad-comprehensible part. After making sure everyone understood what to expect from the essay, I asked them all to read it for the following class, when we would discuss it and apply it to The King of Tars.

Day 2:

I reviewed the concept of differentiating between the medieval text and contemporary interpretation by dividing the board in half and asking students to review what we had discussed in the previous session. As they spoke, I took notes, placing each idea in the appropriate column.

We then returned to discussion of the questions we’d been left with at the end of the previous session, using the two columns on the board to keep the medieval and contemporary sensibilities from getting jumbled together. I particularly wanted them to keep this distinction in mind when asking “aren’t the Christians just as bad?”

Finally, we moved to the most intense part of the lesson. The class divided themselves into groups of three, which meant we had nine groups. I assigned each group one of Cohen’s theses, with two groups working on Thesis II and two on Thesis IV. I asked them to 1) review Cohen’s points and make sure everyone in the group understood the arguments, and 2) apply these arguments to The King of Tars, looking at specific lines or moments in the text which either support or refute Cohen’s claims about “monster culture.”

Since this is a 200-level class, I expected students to struggle with many of the ideas (a 300-level class would likely struggle too!). I sat with each group for a while, helping them work through the ideas and doing mini-lectures about each group’s assigned thesis. The small group was ideal, as students got to ask specific questions of me and of each other, and I was able to ascertain that all three students understood before I moved on to the next group. [Side-note: at one point, I thought “if this is what the UK tutorial model is like, sign me up right now!”]

The ideas that resulted from this group discussion were amazing. Students at first identified almost every character as a monster, but then they revised and edited, carefully differentiating between the perspectives of the medieval reader and our contemporary class. They questioned themselves and each other as they worked, forcing themselves to really think deeply about Cohen’s assertions and the text – on a level I would expect from an upper-level literature class. They worked through ideas about “pure body” and “pure culture,” they looked up lots of words they had never encountered before and might not ever encounter again.

They at times circled around to previous notions of monsters (violent, feared, hated) but caught themselves and each other and went back to wrapping their minds around the idea of a monster as a symbol and manifestation of cultural fears, anxieties, desires, and fantasies, etc.

For the wrap-up, each group presented an explanation of Cohen’s thesis and an analysis of The King of Tars through that lens. Again, I took notes on the board as they spoke (see image below).

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(Note: “princess” should have been crossed out by the end of the lesson, I just forgot to do it on the board! Also note the distinction between medieval and contemporary views under Thesis II.)

We didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about what the text does in regard to medieval portrayals of race, but we did begin to dig into the development of monstrosity and difference in the Middle Ages, and to put it in context with our contemporary perceptions. And since I tend to leave many discussions like that (“so what’s the answer? whatever you can provide evidence for”), my students by then understood the benefit of simply raising questions about a text.

Some of them chose to return to these questions in their papers, which I may write about at another point…

Narrow vs. Broad Writing Prompts [or] Full-Class vs. Individual Writing Instruction

In my first few semesters of teaching Freshman Composition, I wanted to assign papers that weren’t just boring, fill-in-the-requirements topics. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore topics they were interested in themselves.

After all, I reasoned, although I organize my syllabus around a specific topic (usually language, although I’ve done fairy tales a couple of times), this is first and foremost a writing class. It’s a class designed to prepare students for writing throughout the rest of their college years.

It makes sense, I argued to myself, to allow a class with diverse majors to each choose a topic that will interest them and benefit their future writing.

As I quickly discovered, providing a very open-ended essay prompt leads nowhere useful. I’m equal parts amused and horrified at this assignment prompt (look how cute I was, trying to run a 20-student class as a small intimate group):

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In a later semester, I provided a list of topic ideas, based on the syllabus and what we’d been discussing all semester long.

(Note: The assignment below was for English 111, which has no research component. The assignment above was for English 121, the second semester of Freshman Composition, which does include a research requirement.)

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This is a lot better than what I had started out with. But it still resulted in frustration on my part and my students.

They wanted more direct instructions. I wanted them to tap into their own interests and areas of knowledge.

They wanted to know how to get a good grade. I wanted them to delight in the process of research and discovery.

For the next few semesters, I continued tweaking the assignment prompt, trying to find the balance between providing specific, narrow, limiting, boring prompts and broad, exciting, open-ended prompts.

This semester, I think I finally got it right.

After each small addition and change over the past few semesters, I am satisfied with the process.

My students were excited about the research process (okay, most of them were , not all!), and they were not frustrated with having to come up with their own specific topic; I enjoyed their process of discovery, and I was not frustrated by their focus on grades or the inevitable bore of grading 25 papers on the same topic…

The key, I found, lies not in the assignment prompt itself, but in the way we work on the paper.

Last fall, I discovered that my school has a laptop cart that I could reserve for a class, allowing each student to have their own laptop. I used the laptops for peer review and group work, and loved it. And I realized that this is actually essential to teaching writing (at least the way I want to teach it).

In the past, when I walked my students through the research process, it was via one computer screen that was projected to the board at the front of the class. I would ask for one or two volunteers to explain their topics or research questions, and we would use keywords to search the library website, we would open some links, skim some abstracts and articles.

I would try to model how a research question could change as you discover more information and sources, and how you could modify your searches if you’re not getting anything relevant, etc.

And then I would tell my students to go home, and come back for next class with two tentative sources.

But when every student has a laptop in front of them, when they each settle into their own head-space and the room goes quiet except for the tapping of keys and scratching of pencils, a number of good things happen:

1) students are working in a quiet environment, which (by their own admission) doesn’t happen very often;

2) students are spending more than fifteen minutes scrambling for any random sources they can find before class;

3) I am able to circulate among the students and spend time with each one.

Of course, the third is the most important, although the first two benefits are nothing to sneeze at.

My process this semester:

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Part 1:

I assigned the paper, and we read through each prompt as a class. I asked if anyone had ideas about what they want to write about. A few students, who had been laser-focused on a specific topic all semester long (and from whose papers I had drawn some of the details of each prompt) had ideas. The rest did not.

I then asked each student to take out a sheet of paper (or open a new document on their laptops) and to write “Pygamlion / My Fair Lady” at the top of one side, “Language and Science” halfway down the page, and “Language and History” at the top of the second side.

I gave them these instructions: “For each broad topic, we’ll do a five-minute free-write. Let your thoughts about each topic flow – and if you don’t really understand the topic or prompt, write about your lack of understanding! Ask yourself questions, talk about some things you already know about this topic, wonder about some details you might already know but want to know more about…”

After fifteen minutes, during which they wrote about each topic for five minutes, I asked them to look over what they wrote and take any additional notes that come to mind as they reread their scribbles.

I then randomly called on a few students to read what they had written for each prompt. Most prefaced their comments with “but I don’t know if I want to write about this,” and I emphasized again and again that that’s fine – we’re at the stage of exploring possibilities now. No one needs to settle on a topic just yet.

After we heard rambling thoughts from a few students for each topic, I asked the class to look over their notes one more time. By this point, about half were able to say they were leaning toward one topic or another. More than a few students pointed out that their classmates’ thoughts had sparked ideas about their own notes, and had shown them how they might think about their own potential topics from a new angle.

For the last half hour of this class, I asked a few students who had clear ideas about potential topics to allow me to use their ideas while I modeled how to look for sources online, as I did for the first research paper they wrote earlier in the semester. The assignment for the next class session was to continue thinking about their topics.

But I did not ask them to have sources ready for next class.

Part 2:

I couldn’t get the laptop cart for this class… But I had told my students that they should bring their own laptops if possible, and that they should use their phones if that wasn’t possible.

We went around the room and each student briefly told us what their chosen topic was. A number of students were still unsure what exactly they wanted to write about, and a few had multiple possibilities. I responded with guided questions, sometimes leading students to think more broadly about their topics and sometimes more narrowly, and at times asking whether the multiple possibilities were not in fact two prongs of a larger argument…

After a brief review of the skills we had discussed in the previous class, I let my students settle in and begin to look for their own sources. I did not take questions for the first fifteen minutes (because there were a few students in this class who relied on my guidance too much, who were so anxious about getting it right that they didn’t see how much they can do on their own).

And then I began circulating, spending time with each student as if it were a session in the writing center.

First of all, I absolutely loved being a writing tutor as an undergraduate, and I jump at every opportunity to sit and work with someone individually on their papers.

But it was also really useful to my students, because the kind of guidance I can give about narrowing one’s topic or using sources to refine one’s argument, etc., is limited when it’s in a full-class setting. When I get to sit individually with each student, on the other hand, I can teach these skills much more usefully.

For the last fifteen minutes of class, we did another round-the-room, where I asked students to read the titles and authors of at least two potential sources they had found. This was partly to make sure they wrote down the titles and authors, so that when we discussed proper citation in a future class, they would have that information available. It was also to see how their topics may have changed.

That was perhaps the most rewarding exercise of this whole process.

I joked a few times about how clear it was that the writing process is a learning process, that “do you see now why I kept telling you that if you start with a rigid thesis, your research will be frustrating but if you go into it with a semi-question, it will be rewarding?”

They groaned at my ridiculous cheeriness, but they did see.

Part 3:

The papers they wrote were varied in topic, with theses that were quite obviously unique and specific to them. Many wrote about the language histories of their own backgrounds and cultures (the politics of why the same island speaks both French and Spanish; the development of Californian-Spanish from the early twentieth century to now, based on demographic changes and political events; the extinction and survival indigenous languages in the Dominican Republic; the history of Mixtec), or about biological or psychological issues they care about (a number of students in this class are psych majors – they wrote about effects of parent-child language patterns, about the effects of hearing loss, about sign language versus cochlear implants), or about aspects of Pygmalion and / or My Fair Lady that got them fired up (one student who is passionate about fashion wrote about the clothing styles and how the fabrics and cuts of Eliza’s dress signify class difference). A few wrote about topics obviously chosen just to fulfill the assignment, and that’s fine too.

The best part of all this is that the papers themselves are more than just the five-paragraph essay, that they are researched well with far more effort than I’ve ever seen before, and that they are written with a combination of personal passion and “objective” argumentation.

My conclusions:

  1. the assignment prompt itself needs to be balanced between broad and narrow (duh);
  2. and even in a fairly large class, when students don’t have time to come to office hours, it is still possible to provide individualized writing instruction.

Shakespeare Shenanigans

Last semester when I taught Twelfth Night, I led my students in creating a “relationship map” on the board. We delighted  in the ridiculous web of relationships and interactions, and we then went on to discuss what the play suggests about love, identity, attraction, adoration, etc.

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This semester, I decided to expand that activity a bit. After they read Acts I-III for today, I asked my students to work in groups and create their own maps on paper (or laptops). One member from each group then came up to the board to draw their maps in one of five squares. The sixth square was reserved for me.

Once they had all drawn their maps, I asked them to crowd around the board and peruse their classmates’ maps. I stood at a distance behind them and let them comment and exclaim without my interference. (Except for when one student said “What’s with that one, it’s mad confusing,” and another said “that’s the professor’s!” and I laughed out loud…)

Finally, I asked them to sit down again and free-write for five minutes about “relationships, connections, interactions, identity, and / or love,” based on their process of creating the map and based on their observations of each other’s maps.

Pretty much every topic and observation I wanted to highlight was raised by their reflections. (They raised themes of disguise, pretense, gender, sexuality, status, and emotion in addition to the ones I had listed.)

We’ll continue the discussion next class, after they’ve finished reading the final two acts of the play. They’ll be reading these final two acts with a clearer idea of what some events might mean, and with the question firmly in their mind: “What does this play suggest about all these themes?”

I did almost no lecture for this class, though I will do some next class, when we watch clips from various productions and I provide a bit more background on some of the relevant context.

Pacing in a Literature Class: A Bit of Luck

My class is usually really lively and loud. We dive into texts and argue about interpretations, and I allow (and encourage!) a lot of outraged / shocked / delighted exclamations. After all, one of the goals of the class (as stated on the syllabus) is to learn how to enjoy and appreciate older texts.

On the day before we read John Donne, I realized I needed to change tack. I gave a brief overview of Donne’s life, and then a quick summary of what to expect when reading “The Flea,” and I realized that the atmosphere of fun would quickly lead to inappropriate comments when talking about a very sexy / erotic / graphic poem.

I immediately took on a serious demeanor and asked my class to please be serious: “We can have fun with it afterwards,” I said, “but let’s first get the actual ideas down.” They quieted down for the next couple of minutes until the end of class.

As it happened, I was fighting the last days of a cold the next week, as we dug into Donne, so my pace was naturally slower and quieter. It worked well.

It meant that while we talked about the Early Modern idea of semen being produced when the blood churns and froths, students exclaimed in surprise – but we stayed on track. I may have overemphasized the philosophical parts of the poem at the expense of the really fun parts… But it was necessary, and I don’t regret it.

What I discovered, accidentally, was something very valuable about pacing.

First: My own strengths lie in medieval literature, towards the beginning of the semester. When we get to the early modern texts, I can teach them of course – but I haven’t engaged with them in my own scholarship the way I have with medieval texts. The slower pace was very useful for me, as I couldn’t pull random facts out in middle of class as easily, and I couldn’t make exciting connections as much as I had until that point. I could do a solid job with the early modern – but nothing as flashy as what I can do with medieval.

Second: Early modern texts tend to be in shorter pieces, (sonnets, or epic poems easily broken into chunks) and therefore easier to focus on for intense close readings. They’re also slightly more difficult to read than the translated Middle English texts we’d been using (other than Chaucer, which we read in the original ME with lots of glosses). So the slower pace, where we read poems line by line rather than discussing sweeping plots, worked very well.

Third: Early modern poetry felt more “real” to some students than the medieval texts, and they had a harder time keeping track of the historical context. A number of them kept slipping into anachronism, interpreting poems about love or death according to their contemporary understanding and disregarding the poem’s original context. Reading the poems slowly and carefully together helped me head this off each time it happened, before the misunderstandings and misinterpretations had a chance to snowball beyond possibility of correction.

And finally: It was a great way to bring together all the skills students had been honing all semester through class discussion and papers, as they are now more confident in their abilities and excited about the literature. I very much like that at the beginning of the semester, with the loud and lively atmosphere, students felt emboldened to make wild assertions about the texts, always reigned in by the question they started asking each other after getting sick of hearing it from me: “can you find evidence for that in the text?”

But I had been getting the feeling, for a few weeks, that students felt frustrated and unable to see just how much their skills had grown since the beginning of the semester. After a few sessions of intense in-class reading and discussion of shorter poems, in which I made sure to point out critical skills we’ve been practicing and they now use with a fair amount of ease, I can see that they do realize how much they’ve learned.

I didn’t plan to slow down the pace of each class session toward the end of the semester. But I am really glad it worked out that way.

Being Able to Talk First

More than the content of the texts the students read, the goal of a literature class is to allow students to gain skills of critical thinking and analysis. The essays they write are a performance of this skill, while peer review, revisions, and conferences with the professor help students hone their skills.

Before they can even begin to apply these skills, though, they need to develop them in class discussions.

This semester, there are 29 students in my Survey of Early British Literature. All 29 are invested in and excited about the class (to varying degrees, of course), but five or six students tend to dominate the discussion. They raise their hands immediately when a question is posed, and it becomes difficult to regulate the balance of voices when the other students have come to rely on these five or six always having an answer.

Apart from the basic concern of encouraging participation from every student, this does not allow the quieter students to develop the skills they will need for their essays. Since they know others will provide answers if they remain quiet, they don’t use the wait-time I try to provide to really dig deep and allow themselves to form their own thoughts and interpretations. It also is detrimental to the students who never have to deal with criticism or pushback against their ideas from anyone but the professor.

As I became increasingly frustrated by this, I decided to manipulate the roles of each student in our first class on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Using a group activity called “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” (from The Pocket Instructor), I assigned each student a role directly opposite to their demonstrated classroom tendencies.

The five or six outspoken students became the Scribes, required to take notes on the group’s conversation and forbidden to talk. The quietest students became the Leaders, required to provide a preliminary answer to a set of questions. To prevent this from being a complete disaster with the quiet students being frozen and each group not getting any results, I made sure that each Skeptic had already demonstrated some critical ability and would be able to guide the group further, no matter what the Leader started off with. I also assigned at least two Skeptics to each group, to make sure that there would be enough critical analysis to be beneficial and allow the activity to work.

I handed out an assignment sheet to each group (image below), and talked them through it, stressing that although we call one member of each group the “Leader,” this is a mutually supportive group discussion. I gave a little speech about the benefits of this activity, pointing out that as we write essays, it’s difficult to be our own critics, and that this exercise allows us to practice those skills.

The Leader, I said, would have to defend or change their original arguments in the face of pushback. We often forget to do this when we write our own essays, because our arguments seem so clear to us. Having others attack our arguments helps our own critical thinking. The Skeptics would have to analyze the Leaders’s argument and look for inconsistencies or lack of evidence. Looking at an argument from the perspective of “what’s wrong with this” or “how can this be improved” is an important skill in our own writing, as well. Attacking someone else’s argument helps our own critical thinking. And the Scribes would have to pay careful attention to the twists and turns of the entire debate, which allows them to be more aware of how interpretations and textual evidence work together in an argument.

The activity started off quiet and slow, as most group activities do, since each group has to settle down and make sure they understand the activity. It soon got loud and intense and involved, with the Scribes scribbling furiously and the Leaders and Skeptics turning pages, marking lines, reading aloud in Middle English… As I continually made my rounds to each group, I realized most groups would only get to one character out of the three assigned to them. But in large part that was because their discussions were far more intense and detailed than I had anticipated.

The results were incredible.

First of all, the eager and talkative students actually listened to their classmates, some for the first time all semester. Though none of them said this outright, I did notice in at least two of them a new respect for their classmates that I had not seen before. In the following class, two students began explaining something they had discussed in their group, and the more talkative student (who had been the Scribe) deferred to the quieter student (who had been a Skeptic) by saying “no, you say it, you’re smarter than me.”

The most egregious talker had tended not to listen to any part of the conversation in the days before this activity. They would offer answers to my questions, they would offer detailed and lengthy explanations and interpretations of points in the text – but almost never did those comments engage with their classmates’ comments or respond to other points made in the course of the discussion. In the class following this activity, they were almost entirely silent, and their few comments directly responded to what others had said.

That in itself would have been enough for me to consider the activity a resounding success. Having the overly-vocal students quiet down would automatically create room for the more hesitant students to participate and contribute, and to use class discussion as a place to develop critical skills. But a comment from one of the quieter, less confident students told me the activity had also been successful in a more direct way.

In the class following this activity, I asked my students to take a few minutes and answer a few questions about how things are going in terms of the reading, writing, and class discussions. This is a method I’ve observed some of my colleagues doing, and they always talk about how helpful it is to allow students to provide this feedback and evaluation halfway through the semester rather than waiting until the end.

One student directly addressed the previous class’s “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” activity. They are one of the quietest students in class, always attentive and listening intently to the discussion, but never raising their hand and declining to contribute when I cold-call them. I had, of course, assigned them to be the Leader in their group.

Here’s what they wrote in response to my question about discussions:

I like all discussions and group work. I just prefer not to be a leader but it wasn’t so bad, being able to talk first was great.

And with that, I felt the activity was a success. I could not have asked for a better response. Of course, as I mentioned above, I had deliberately chosen students who were already more comfortable with voicing thoughts to be the Skeptics.

But allowing the hesitant students to be Leaders, forcing the students who tend to think that their thoughts and interpretations of the text are not worth sharing, to not only contribute to the conversation but to actually begin it – there’s a sense of power they might gain from that. It gives them the opportunity to critically think about a question before anyone gives them a possible answer, which is in itself important, and it shows them that they can do it, too.

“Being able to talk first” does not simply mean having their voice heard before anyone else’s. It also means contemplating an issue or a question based on their own mind and their own interpretation of the text – allowing themself to figure out what they think without the clutter of everyone else’ voices in their head. Of course, the others’ ideas will then engage with their own. But in terms of development of both critical skills and confidence, “being able to talk first” is no small thing.

This student will almost certainly not magically begin to spontaneously offer opinions and insights from now on. Maybe they will reach deeper for an answer when I cold-call them. Maybe not. But for one day, for one class session, they stepped out of their comfort zone (okay, they were forced out of their comfort zone…) and discovered that “being able to talk first” is quite nice.

Image: a screenshot of the activity sheet I handed out in class.

leader skeptic scribe

Tiny Tweaks, Powerful Payoffs

I know that one of my great teaching weaknesses is my tendency to historicize heavily, sometimes at the expense of the literature I’m supposed to be teaching. The main criticism I got from the chair of my department when she observed my literature class last year was this – that I spent too much time and energy on the historical context and not enough time on discussion and analysis of the literature.

With this feedback in mind, I’ve begun a new practice in my literature course this semester. Every class session begins with a list of topics on the board, as I began to do last year. But now I add a ten- to fifteen-minute writing assignment at the start of class:

For each topic listed on the board, find one quote in the text and copy it onto a separate sheet of paper.

Once in a while, I’ll ask them to reflect on a topic as well and I’ll collect that as a low-stakes writing assignment. More often than not, I plan to simply ask them to pull these quotes out for use in the class discussion.

It’s been three weeks, and I can already see the effects of this new practice. While I still veer off into historicism during lecture and when intervening in discussion, my students constantly refer to the quotes they’ve written down, constantly direct their classmates to the appropriate lines, and take notes on each other’s chosen quotes as well. In their Blackboard assignments, I included no language about quoting and citing the text and yet every single post so far includes at least two quotations with the proper citation.

They’re working on their first essays now, due next week, and I am looking forward to grading a more literature-based batch of essays than I’ve received the last two times I taught this class.

Little Big Girl: Feminism & Adolescence in "Little Red Riding Hood" Song

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Syllabus prep led me to two versions of the song “Little Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, and the cover by Amanda Seyfried. I’ll be asking my students to analyze the two versions, as part of a close-reading/note-taking exercise for a freshman composition class. But I have many thoughts about aspects we likely won’t touch in class.

At first, I thought the song was irredeemably misogynist. I’m still pretty sure the original is. But after listening to the Amanda Seyfried version about a million times on repeat, I think it might actually have a positive feminist message, partly about adolescence.

When the singer is male, the song is disturbing enough (it’s using a disturbing fairy tale about female puberty, after all). It’s essentially the “nice-guy” trope – I’ll protect you until you trust me. Until you trust me enough that I can drop the nice guy act, that is, and be the bad wolf I am – until I can drop my sheep clothes.

Then again, there’s that line “bad wolves can be good” – perhaps a reference to BDSM? (Apparently there are some very dirty versions of this song. But I only found references to those, I didn’t find the songs themselves.) I kind of liked to think it is, but the addressee of the song is very clearly a young girl. That’s not okay.

50 Shades is only fine if Ana actually wanted it. If she was tricked or manipulated into wanting it, as the girl in this song might be, that’s a problem.

It does sound at times that he is a genuinely nice guy, not out to trick or manipulate Red into anything she might not want. He wants to hold her, “But you might think I’m a big bad wolf so I won’t.” That could go both ways. He’s really not a big bad wolf, because he doesn’t try to hold her.

But at the end he has to remind himself not to howl but to bleat, and he does hope that eventually Red will accept that a bad wolf isn’t bad. He gains her trust, and in his own mind he’s worthy of that trust. But he initiated contact because he noticed a pretty girl, he claims to be protecting her from others, and he plans to act differently once he’s gained that trust. That is classic nice-guy behavior.

Then there’s the “blazon” – the cataloging of the girl’s features, obviously echoing Red’s own words in the tale “my, what big eyes you have.” But here it’s “the kind of eyes that drive wolves mad,” “what full lips you have, sure to lure someone bad.”

A girl can’t help her full lips (not counting the craziness of the Kylie Jenner challenge), but they’re apparently going to lure someone bad regardless of what she does.

“You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.” If that isn’t a life-long unshakable scare, I don’t know what is. It tells her she can do nothing, she just will always be attracting these big bad wolves simply because of physical features she has no control over. If she wants big bad wolves, good for her. If she doesn’t – well, too bad. It’ll happen anyway.

The only thing that can protect her is this guy escorting her – and he plans to become that big bad wolf driven mad eventually.

So what happens when the speaker is a woman?

First of all, Amanda Seyfried sings this far more seductively than the original. I’m not entirely sure yet what that does to it. Her tone could be interpreted as soothing and comforting rather than seductive.

It starts off sounding like the speaker might be someone like Red’s mother in the tale, who warns her about the dangers in the wood – an older wiser woman giving a young girl advice.

With that message of “you can’t help it, your body will always attract the wrong type of guy,” having a woman say it is troubling. Internalized misogyny, acceptance of patriarchal attitudes, female acceptance of their own inevitable sexualization and being at the mercy of anyone who wants to focus on and pursue them sexually.

But considering that the woman says the same words as the man (“maybe you’ll see things my way / before we get to grandma’s place”), the female speaker could be interested in the little girl sexually too. The problems are the same as with the man, but with a twist.

Assuming the wolf is still male, it’s an added problem of portraying an older lesbian woman telling a young girl that men are predators, and that a woman can protect her, only to become just as predatory as the men she’s warned the girl about.

Then again, maybe seeing things her way before she gets to grandma’s place isn’t referring to Red agreeing to have sex with the speaker. And here’s where the feminist reading kicks in.

Maybe the offer to escort her, keep her safe so she doesn’t get chased, is actually about ushering her through the time when she is a “little big girl,” vulnerable to society sexualizing her body. The speaker is then assuring her that she is not simply a sexual being – and maybe by the time she gets through these woods (adolescence? society in general?), she’ll understand that just because wolves chase her, that doesn’t mean that’s her identity.

Keeping her sheep suit on until Red knows she can be trusted might mean speaking and acting meekly as society has told Red a woman should. Ultimately, she can show Red that “even bad wolves can be good” – both that a vocal and angry feminist is not a bad thing, and also that “notallmen” – a full understanding of it all. “Grandma’s house” then refers to adulthood.

In this reading, the whole song is advocating for female mentorship of adolescent girls to both keep them safe in the moment and to teach them that society’s view of them (read: men’s sexualization of them) should not shape their own views of themselves, of sexuality, of men, of society.

Notably, Amanda Seyfried’s cover leaves out both the beginning howl of appreciation and the closing howl-to-bleat. The last lines in the original, before the howl-to-bleat, is a reminder that she’s everything a big bad wolf could want. The last lines in the cover is a repetition of “So until you get to grandma’s place / I think you ought to walk with me and be safe.” The male speaker reiterates the little big girl’s desirability; the female speaker reiterates the wish to keep the little big girl safe.

I love the Amanda Seyfried cover, despite its disturbing undertones. Partly because of its disturbing undertones. But mostly because within those disturbing undertones, I see the possibility for a really cool feminist reading of it.