Friday, April 18, 2008

There's always room for Jello and medieval

Prof. de Breeze over at Caught in the Snide asks how much medieval is too much in a British survey. My answer is this: Don't be a Newbie Nokes.

When I was such a freshly-minted PhD that you could still smell the wrapper on me, I gave little attention to the medieval lit in my British survey classes. My reasoning as Newbie Nokes ran something like this: I really want to teach the medieval, so if I'm teaching a lot of medieval, it's because I want to, not because the survey needs it. I have a responsibility to the students to avoid self-interest and to cover the other material as well as possible. The anthology was broken up into three sections, with the first (medieval) being by-far the shortest, so I spent the least amount of time on the medieval lit, thus avoiding the guilt of assigning readings that I wanted rather than what's best for the student.

Dumb. But fortunately, I had a (non-medieval) colleague kind enough to tell me what an idiot I was being. He saw my syllabus, and asked why there was so little medieval. I piously gave him the above justification, to which he responded by looking at me like I'm mentally defective. His answer ran something like this:

"So, you're going to deny the students your expertise in your specialty?

I don't remember my answer; it probably involved a lot of stammering. Suffice it to say that I reinvented my syllabus the next semester.

How much, though, is too much? At what point are you no longer teaching a British Lit survey, and are instead teaching a crypto-medieval course? It takes a lot more than you might think. Consider this side rant from de Breeze:
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?

Whoa, whoa. De Breeze has closed that off in brackets as a little aside, but that's precisely the main point! Look at the Norton Anthology of English Literature, for example. The three volumes run at something like 6000 pages, less than 500 of which are medieval. Now, I'm sure M.H. Abrams is a really nice guy with a really low golf score, but he ain't the boss of me, and he sure ain't the boss of you. WE, the collective we of English professors, determine the field, not Abrams or whoever. If Abrams thinks that the English medieval literary tradition is represented by Beowulf, excerpts from the Canterbury Tales, and a few odds-and-ends, then perhaps we should esteem him accordingly.

Here's the balance I've struck. In Brit Lit I, I spend the 1/3 of the semester on Old English, 1/3 on Middle, and 1/3 on Early Modern. In other words, my students are 2/3 of the way through the semester before they get out of that first teeny volume. I would argue, however, that it's perfectly justifiable, if one wanted to do it as a true survey, to take all of Brit Lit I as medieval, because even that gives modern all of Brit Lit II, when it is only 1/3 of the period supposedly being surveyed.

Nor are our modernist colleagues offering us anything close to the same courtesy. Spend about ten minutes looking at the online syllabi of non-medievalists teaching the Brit Lit surveys, and you'll find that the norm is to teach zero medieval texts, though a good number will teach one and only one (generally Beowulf or CT). Quietly take a peek at the syllabi of your colleagues in your own department, and you'll likely find the same thing.*

The only way to change these survey courses so that they actually survey the first millennium of English literature is to teach them that way. No amount of cajoling your colleagues will help. Even if they editors of the Norton & Longman Anthologies read this post, it's doubtful they'll lose any sleep.** To change this, we have to offer a proper view of what the English literary canon is -- mostly stuff written in the Middle Ages.

So, my answer to Prof. de Breeze's question, "How much medieval is too much?" I respond, "Much more than you would think."

*Make it really quiet though. No need to cheese people off.
** It's amazing how smug a certain type of scholar is when it comes to his ignorance of medieval literature. If a medieval literature professor were familiar with only one or two modern texts, we'd rightfully consider him incompetent. Am I saying that modernists who aren't familiar with medieval texts are incompetent? You bet I am.


  1. Reminds me of how I grumbled at my office mates at UConn, telling them that their failure to read anything pre-Shakespeare made them Modern English majors, not English majors. One of the reasons I was never an English major. I must admit I never felt the way you did. I knew my students were getting ripped off by colleagues who (to this day) teach one Chaucer tale as a representation of "the medieval" in an Early British Lit survey.

    People still use the Norton Anthologies?

    Longman's pissing me off because of the crappy translations they've changed to - so I've changed to the Broadview for this fall, which at least has the Liuzza Beowulf and not the one by those jokers who refer to Unferth as a "jester" (yes, a jester -- how many kinds of wrong is that?).

  2. This is a glorious post, and I'm thrilled you and Prof. de Breeze have raised this topic.

    I'm a modern lit Ph.D. student at UW–Madison, and aside from two mandatory pre-1800 courses I took my MA year I have had zero exposure to my department's amazing medieval lit program. Had I taken the Exeter Book course a few years back I would have been far worse a student than those whose semesters of AS and ON gave them a depth of expertise... And I think everyone in the class would have looked at me askance: there is no obvious explanation why a prospective scholar of Woolf and Rushdie would spend time with texts Woolf and Rushdie barely heard of.

    Is part of the problem that we're trained as scholars rather than as instructors? Is there an inveterate distrust of surveys among the modern professoriate that leads to a departmental preference for scholarly depth rather than instructional breadth?

  3. Thanks for the response, RSN. My first survey classes looked just like yours, and for exactly the same reasons. I purposefully downplayed medieval lit to avoid appearances of impropriety and out of a strange sense of self-denial. I've evolved out of that attitude, but I've never gone quite as far as you in giving the medieval a larger place in the syllabus. You've inspired me now.

    One thing: can I refer my dean to your blog if he has any questions about my reading list?

  4. Anonymous12:55 PM

    I've always enjoyed the sections of survey classes (Brit Lit, World Lit, and Am Lit) when the professor had some area of expertise. For instance, my Am Lit class is much more engaging and fun when a certain Melville scholar lectures about Moby Dick; otherwise, the class contains just Transcendentalist drivel. Because he seems excited and enthusiastic about teaching his area of expertise, I enjoy the class more. He also made Moby Dick, a book I wouldn't have even touched on my own, one of my favorite books of all time.

  5. Lots of historians whose specialty is post-1800 are perfectly content knowing little more about earlier stuff than cliches which are nearly a century out of date. Early modernists feel obliged to know a bit more -- but seldom much. A great many of them are content to study the "rise of modernity" and you know what that means. Can medievalists or ancient historians do the same? Guffaw.

  6. J.R.R. Tolkien to John Masefield (then Poet Laureate) in 1938, concerning remarks which Masefield intended as an introduction to Tolkien's recitation of the Nun's Priest's Tale:

    "I might perhaps say that these lines seem to me to allude to the erroneous imagination that Chaucer was the first English poet, and that before and except for him all was dumb and barbaric. That is of course not true... I do not personally connect the North with either night or darkness, especially not in England, in whose long 1200 years of literary tradition Chaucer stands rather in the middle than the beginning. I also do not find him springlike but autumnal..." [The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 39-40].

  7. Dr. Nokes, these are great reflections for me--a student just beginning the road to professorhood--to hear from an established professor. It helps situate what I love and the larger problem of ignorance of the medieval within the larger academic world. It's something on my mind with my coursework and thinking ahead to teaching this literature in the future. Knowing that I can someday implement my specialty (even in survey courses) and that a syllabus like yours can actually exist is comforting--even exhilarating!