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Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 18, 2007, Volume 54, No. 4

Connecting Students with the Unfamiliar

David Wallace

Teaching at Penn is a pleasure because the students, from the start, are on your side. Students elsewhere might pull down the seedcap, lean back and see how you do: but Penn students want you to be the best possible professor. This is in part so they can be sure of having made the best possible choice in picking this class: but it still helps, and they will work hard to prove themselves right. Such an attitude particularly helps those of us teaching subjects that might be quite new, even alien, to the prior experience of Penn students; in my case, this is medieval English literature.

The English Department at Penn has a terrific culture of teaching, with superb administrative support: year after year, its faculty and graduate students near-sweep the SAS teaching awards. As English professors, we are all obsessed with English and every class, for us, is a writing class. This does not always win rave reviews (“He seems obsessed by punctuation and grammar.”) To which we must reply: guilty as charged. Graduate students in the English Department follow a trajectory of teaching, from TAing to the devising of independent courses; many of our best teachers are advanced graduate students. And the teaching of, and learning from, senior associates has been a special joy. One class began with four of them in the front row. After two weeks the two women moved to the back of the class and the men stayed put. “Why did you move?” I asked the women. “Because we were talking too much,” they said. “Why did you stay put?” I asked the men. “Because we are too deaf to hear from back there,” they replied. Through them I have come to meet some very fine people and gained access to a wider Philadelphia world.

I teach medieval poetry. Colleagues think I have a hard row to hoe, but au contraire: I feel sorry for colleagues who teach later periods. Premodern literature—Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton—is written to be read aloud, performed and declaimed in large public spaces. Modern novels are read in a room of one’s own; it is thus tricky to translate this private experience to the public domain of the classroom. This can be true of modern verse too: except in the case of our own Charles Bernstein, whose Pennsound recording project restores voice and personality to modern poetry. It has been great fun collaborating with Charles, and with his students and other poets, in various medieval/modern experiments.  

But the Middle Ages did happen a very long time ago: before even I was born, I tell my students. But then I ask them to point to themselves. Point to yourself.  I then ask them why they are pointing to their hearts: since when did the self reside in the torso, and not in the cranium? Since the Middle Ages, of course. We can then think of other medieval conceptions carrying forward without our hardly noticing: romantic love (and St. Valentine’s Day); universities and academic disciplines (with the original threat of having knowledge beaten or disciplined into you: cf. R. Bushnell, A Culture of Teaching); Crusades and jihads; and a whole continent “discovered” by an Italian looking and thinking through such “medieval” categories.

Medieval texts offer tremendous educational opportunities: a chance to engage with a culture looking and sounding like ours, yet differing from it; an encounter with otherness grounded upon common (but not too quickly universalized) humanity. Similar opportunities present themselves through teaching foreign languages: but things move along more quickly with Middle English, since modern English derives from the Franco-Germanic union (plus Celtic and Norse) that began after 1066. One pop exercise that students particularly enjoy is etymologize that: trying to figure out how a familiar English name was formed (try daisy, dandelion, or—for readers of Hamlet—mole). My Chaucer class begins with words, lexicon, and builds up from there. The first exercise requires students to study several hundred lines of Middle English, and to identify some 50 words in a class test (and nobody can know what wight means, I tell them, unless they study). Next comes translation from Middle English: this continues to hold attention upon the details of the text. The next assignment introduces the concept of critical commentary: I first assign a particular passage and ask them to tell me why these particular lines are important; I then invite them to pick their own passages and convince me of their especial significance. All this builds towards essay writing: for the most crucial stage of composition, I tell them, comes in choosing the five or six passages that will—through detailed and particular analysis—form the backbone of their argument. This helps produce evidence-based essays, rather than generalized waffle. Having written a shorter essay, students then proceed to a research paper: this requires background reading, office or e-consultation, a one-page outline, and (finally) independent imagination. Students are encouraged to tell me things I don’t already know, and to draw from their own areas of special interest (childbirth and Trotula texts; chemistry and alchemy; financial accounting and Purgatory; military science and chivalry).            

While all this is going on, throughout the semester, we learn to read Middle English aloud. Students begin by repeating lines after me; they then each read a line along the row (this avoids excessive embarrassment, preserving semi-anonymity); then a sentence; then a passage. The point here is to enjoy a poetry that was written to be read aloud (silent reading being a postmedieval invention) and to grasp that every reading is an act of critical interpretation. Sometimes in class we break down into groups to prepare a reading. One student will be the designated reader; one the translator or glossator; and the others the exegetes. Preparation time allows me (and my TAs) to move between groups; each group then gets to present and to face questions from the whole class.

The choosing of course titles, I have learned, directly impacts enrollment. “King Arthur and his Knights” attracts a good number of men; “Masculinity, Chivalry, and Romance,” applied to the very same course materials, attracts far fewer (most men being unwilling to analyze masculinity). Courses on premodern women enroll mostly women. My general approach here might be summarized by the question: how did women, given less than ideal circumstances, nonetheless achieve meaningful lives? The parenthetic qualification “less than ideal circumstances” cannot be leapt over lightly (especially by a male instructor), but the aim here is again to achieve some measure of respect and understanding for historical difference. And to consider how life imperatives change: in Catholic medieval England, virginity was rated highest (100% spiritual return), with widowhood second (66%) and wifehood last (33%). In Renaissance Protestant England, woman’s highest duty is marriage and production of offspring. To what extent, however, might cultures mourn the lost option of an all-female society? The teaching of courses on women to women puts me on the sharpest learning curve. I have learned, for example, that Penn women students discuss issues of sexuality and gender with relative comfort. But the uses of beauty, as employed by premodern women such as Margaret Cavendish, leaves them ill at ease (bombarded as they are, one realizes, by endless images of unrealistic and unattainable female perfection).

Teaching at Penn is immensely rewarding; thanks for the opportunity.

David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English,
was awarded the Ira H. Abrams Award for Distinguished Teaching, School of Arts and Sciences, 2007.
He has been appointed Clarendon Lecturer in English, Oxford University (October 2007)
and Bain-Swiggett Visiting Professor of Poetry, Princeton University (Spring 2008).

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - September 18, 2007, Volume 54, No. 4