Creating Connections to Medieval Literature
My teaching and my research center on the literate practices of communities—how we share words crafted into expressions of poetry, song, debate, drama, and narrative. In order to help my literature students find their own connections with those communities, my pedagogy prioritizes students’ positive first encounters with texts. I recognize that reading medieval and early modern literatures requires students to grasp disparate interwoven strands of language, form, theme, and culture. In my classroom, I remain keenly aware how daunting students may find that first encounter, and so I carefully plan rich multi-layered first experiences that help them find their way through a text’s layers of linguistic, literary, and cultural contexts. This preparation invites my students to read texts as generously as possible, while also equipping them to think critically about them. For instance, when teaching Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales to undergraduates, I introduce them to "The General Prologue" with a taste of material culture. We enter the world of medieval religious tourism, by looking at a map of medieval London with its gated walls and single bridge, which visually illustrates why the pilgrims went over the crowded bridge before the city gates closed at sunset. I show them my photos of the southern bank of the Thames River and the existing inn that stands near where the pilgrim’s inn once was. I pass around a replica of a pewter Canterbury pilgrim's badge, telling the students to look for St. Thomas Becket amidst all the tiny details. We talk about the healing miracles ascribed to the martyred saint, and the various reasons a medieval person might go on pilgrimage. After this brief introduction, we carefully read through the opening together. I help them work through the Middle English spelling variations and their text's apparatus so they can read for themselves that when the weather gets warm and the flowers bloom in April, "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages."
My students expect the Middle Ages to be distant and strange—that medieval people would go on pilgrimages for serious religious reasons (such as a cure for leprosy), but they often express surprise that many of Chaucer’s pilgrims also enjoyed travel in much the same ways we do. By humanizing the text in this way, I give my students an entrance point into Chaucer's world. They have the beginning of a narrative into which they can place the descriptions of the characters as they read the rest of the prologue for the following class. I assign a series of questions about particular pilgrims and their intentions. Why is each character going on the pilgrimage? What specific words are used to describe them? I have students look up three of these words in the online Middle English Dictionary. Because I have given them a concrete framework in which to put Chaucer's narrative and assigned specific reading tasks, my students arrive well-prepared to talk about the idiosyncratic pilgrims. This illustrates several elements of my teaching. My lesson plan: 1) gains the students’ goodwill towards reading the text, 2) encourages close reading of the text with the aid of language resources, 3) provides a “low stakes” entrance point to the following class’s discussion, and 4) prepares students to be critical readers of the prologue’s overly positive tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the pilgrims. In class, I ask students to tell me about each pilgrim and the words they have looked up. At first I encourage them to slot the pilgrims into the idealized stereotypes of the "three estates," then later help them find the satirical details that do not fit—such as why the Monk is known for his hunting skills. Together we construct a picture of Chaucer as a writer who subverts stereotypes even as he appears to be reinforcing them. By teaching my students to be wary of reading too literally, I prepare them to encounter the slippery complexities of Chaucer’s tales in subsequent readings.
As my example above illustrates, much of the literature of the Middle Ages both constructs and interrogates stereotypes, asking many of the same questions we still struggle with today—What is the role of women? How do we integrate (or expel) the outsider? What are the consequences of revenge? How can we work for the "commune profit" (universal good)? Medieval authors, living in a time when most reading was done out loud and in a group, often posed such questions in order to provide conversational gambits for their readers to continue discussing a topic after the book was closed. I find my students very willing to respond to these prompts. For instance, my students in this post-#MeToo age are quick to pick up Chaucer's subtle reference to date rape that is dropped into the Wife of Bath's encyclopedic survey of the querelle des femmes (Nature of Women Debate). My teaching incorporates these deliberately interactive, multi-vocal aspects of medieval literature into my students’ reading experiences. I assign a number of short response papers throughout the semester, in which they can respond to a text's provocative gambits. These papers help students remain accountable for the reading and also provide “bite-sized” opportunities to begin thinking and writing about topics that can later be expanded into term papers.
As a professor of Early English literature I continually revise the historical narratives and contexts I give my students, as our current moment reaches for more nuanced understandings of both our past and present place within our global world. For instance, when introducing poetry to non-majors, I often use love lyrics as a "gateway drug" to foster their confidence in working with poetry. I begin by having my students read Troubadour lyrics in translation, and underline the love tropes that are repeated in them. As we create a list of the lyrics' repeated tropes in class, I demonstrate to students that they already know how many of these tropes work—weather in a love song tells us about the state of the relationship, love is described in opposites such as fire and ice, etc. I pull up a modern love song from that week's Billboard Top Ten, and we pick out the medieval tropes in it. Students are fascinated at the way love songs have naturalized certain medieval ideas about love in our culture—love at first sight, love as pain. They enjoy knowing how these medieval tropes link to a part of their own culture. By allowing my students to begin with a genre of poetry whose metaphors and moves they already know, I instill confidence in them that they are capable of analyzing and interpreting the tightly distilled language of poetry. But having created that connection between past and present, I also problematize this "easy" connection by making a spatial turn. Putting up a magnificently detailed map of the world drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi, a twelfth century Arab geographer, I defamiliarize the world as they know it. The top of the map is south, rather than north, and this one detail makes the world unrecognizable. When I rotate the map to the orientation we are accustomed to, my students still have trouble finding England and France, since they are relegated to an unimportant upper corner. I briefly tell my students about Islam's sweep across the southern Mediterranean, and its accretion of the wealth and libraries of North Africa. Then we read together Arab and Hebrew love lyrics from twelfth-century al-Andalus. Just as we can see that our modern love songs trace their lineage from southern France, my students can also see how the Troubadour lyrics grow out of contact with Muslim Spain. Thus my lesson plan aids students in acquiring a facility and confidence with poetry that will aid them for the rest of the semester, but it also decenters England and English—giving them a way to view their love songs—and themselves—as connected pieces of a larger diverse world.
My fifteen-years of undergraduate teaching and my training in late-medieval literature and culture makes me particularly well suited to teach focused courses on Middle English literature as well as broader British literature survey courses. In addition to my specialties in Chaucerian literature and lyric poetry, I have secondary teaching specialties in Medieval/Renaissance drama, as well as Arthurian literature. Additionally, I had the opportunity to mentor graduate students in my role as the New Chaucer Society Postdoctoral Fellow at Saint Louis University. I helped them with revisions of their writing drafts, and also assisted with their professionalization as scholars. In particular, I helped them to mindfully scaffold their research projects, to plan for an efficient use of their efforts, so that their conference presentations would feed into their dissertation chapters, and also provide material for publishable articles. Finally, as my CV shows, I am a proficient grant and scholarship writer, a skill which I have often employed on behalf of the graduate students around me.