Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Back to the classroom

by J J Cohen

I didn't teach during the fall semester. I knew I'd be overwhelmed with administrative tasks, since I had pledged to leave as little unfinished business for the next chair of my department as possible. I also did not want a repeat of the fall semester of 2008 when I taught a Chaucer course for which I never had sufficient time to prep and to be present for the students. Though the class went fairly well, I could not help feeling I was shortchanging them somehow. Inevitably a departmental crisis would arise an hour before meeting time and my mind would be focused upon it rather than them as I entered the room.

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.

Here, for those who are interested, is my syllabus. I invented this course three years ago, and it has become my favorite. Some of those in the classroom will go on to become English majors; most are taking it to fulfill a "Writing in the Disciplines" requirement.


Spring Semester 2010

Professor Jeffrey J. Cohen <jjcohen@gwu.edu>
Office: Rome Hall 657
Office hours by appointment. I am happy to meet with you! Arrange a time by email.
Lowell Duckert <lduckert@gmail.com>
Jessica Frazier <jrf@gwmail.gwu.edu>
Nedda Mehdizadeh <nmehdiz@gwmail.gwu.edu>

Much great English literature turns out not to be so English after all: the action of the epic Beowulf unfolds in Scandinavia; King Arthur was a Welsh king before he was an English monarch; Shakespeare's Tempest takes place on an island in the Mediterranean, but the play is also about the colonization of the New World. "Myths of Britain" looks at the early island within a transnational frame. We explore literature as a way to imagine collective and individual identities, and -- as art -- a vehicle for escaping their constraints. Among our recurring keywords: heroism, monstrosity, community, travel, enjoyment, beauty, creation, art, authorship, sexuality, death.

The mission of this course is threefold:
(1) to give you the chance to hone your writing through the careful analysis of literature within its historical context
(2)  to introduce you to contemporary scholarly methods of studying early England within a transnational frame
(3) to explore the relation between narrating the past and bringing about a desired future, paying close attention to who is excluded from this emergent community

Code of Courtesy
Arrive on time with your cell phone silenced. Bring the appropriate book. Give the professor and your TA your full attention. Do not chat, text, or surf the internet. Remain in the room until the lecture or section ends. Conduct yourself in a manner respectful to all present. Never hesitate to ask a question, to express a doubt, or to request clarification.

Learning Objectives
If you are diligent in keeping up with readings, lectures, and discussions, by the end of this course you will:
1.      be able to identify key concepts such as identity and transnationalism, and apply them to literary texts
2.      be able to apply techniques of critical analysis (especially close reading) to a variety of genres, including epic, lais, romances, historiography, poetry, and scholarly essays
3.      understand contemporary approaches to literary and cultural studies

English 40W is a WID (Writing in the Disciplines) class with writing-related objectives. By the end of the course you will
1.      understand what constitutes a strong thesis statement, and have practice in formulating such statements in your analyses of texts
2.      understand what constitutes evidence in literary or textual analysis, and be able to apply the rules of evidence to formulating a persuasive argument
3.    understand and identify the qualities that constitute excellent work in literary studies. These include: coherent organization of points, attentive explication of quotations in support of a thesis, strong transitions, and innovative argument.

Course format: The course meets twice a week: on Mondays at 11:10 a.m. in MPA 309 for lecture, and on Wednesdays for discussion sections. Attendance at both lecture and section is required.

Texts (available from the GWU Bookstore)
Suhayl Saadi, The White Cliffs [recommended]
Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton Critical edition)
Song of Roland (trans. Glyn Burgess)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (trans. Lewis Thorpe)
Marie de France, Lais (trans. Hanning and Ferrante)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trans. Simon Armitage)
Travels of Sir John Mandeville (trans. C.W.R.D. Mosely)
William Shakespeare, Henry V (ed. Mowat and Werstine)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Bedford Case Studies, 2nd edition)

1. Attend lectures and sections; participate in discussion; complete readings and assignments on time.
2. Reading quizzes:  Monday’s lectures begin with a brief reading quiz. Lateness or absence from lecture is not an excuse for missing the quiz. Missed quizzes cannot be made up. These brief tests cumulatively take the place of a midterm examination.
3. Writing assignments: Four short but intense writing assignments culminate in a fifth, a five page problem paper. Detailed information about the assignments will be available well in advance. You will have ample opportunity to discuss the assignments in section.
4. Gateway Lecture and performance of Henry V: see below.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at http://www.gwu.edu/~ntegrity. The best way to avoid “accidental” plagiarism: do not speak to or look towards others during the reading quiz; do not use the internet for this class, except when specifically told to do so.

Disability statement: If you feel you need accommodations based on the impact of a disability, contact Prof. Cohen and your TA. Disability Support Services (Marvin Center 242, 9948250, http://gwired.gwu.edu/dss) is available to assist you.

Grading rubric:
Your grade for the course will be determined by adding together the following and determining a numerical equivalent (e.g. 80-83 points is a B-, 84-86 is a B, 87-89 a B+, and so on):
Attendance at one Gateway Lecture (see below)                            3
Attendance at performance of Henry V                                           3
Participation in section                                                                    15
Reading quizzes                                                                               24 (12x2 points each)
Four short but intense writing exercises                                          4 x 5 = 20 total
Final writing exercise                                                                       10
Final examination                                                                             25
TOTAL POSSIBLE POINTS                                                        100

Gateway Lectures:
This course introduces students to the ways in which contemporary scholars analyze the literature of the medieval and early modern period. You are therefore required to attend at least one of the “Gateway Lectures” that have been arranged through the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute:
·       Jan. 29, 4 PM: Alf Siewers (Bucknell University), "Ecocriticism"
·       February 12, 4 PM: Michelle Warren (Dartmouth), "The Postcolonial Past"
·       March 25, 4 PM: Marissa Greenberg (University of New Mexico), "Writing and Space"
All of these lectures are on Friday afternoons in the Marvin Center. Exact places will be announced in class, via Blackboard, and at www.gwmemsi.comhttp://www.gwmemsi.com/
. Make sure you check in with a TA when you attend so that you will receive credit. Coming to more than one lecture will earn you an extra two points on your final average, and will also make you a better person. You may attend as many as you wish.

Performance of Henry V
Though typically studied in a classroom as a text, Henry V was – like all of Shakespeare’s plays -- intended for performance. The Shakespeare Theatre (www.shakespearetheatre.org) is mounting a production of the play that will run from Feb. 4 – April 10. Tickets are as low as $10 for students (details on theatre website). All students taking this course are required to attend a performance of Henry V and submit the ticket stub to their TA to receive credit.

Schedule of Readings and Assignments
January 11              Lecture: The Britain in England. Texts: “The Green Children” (handout; also on Blackboard) and Suhayl Saadi, The White Cliffs
January 13              Section: Introductions. “The Wanderer” (please print out a copies via Blackboard [under “Electronic Reserves”] and read before section).
January 18              No lecture (MLK day)
January 20              Section: Comparison of opening lines of Beowulf in several translations. Short writing assignment #1 handed out (poetic language exercise).
January 25              Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney lines 1-1798. First assignment due in lecture.
January 27              Section
January 29              Gateway Lecture: Alf Siewers, "Ecocriticism"
February 1              Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 1799-end
February 3              Section: Seamus Heaney, “Translator’s Introduction.” Short writing assignment #2 handed out (close reading of passage).
February 8              Lecture: Song of Roland. Second writing exercise due.
February 10              Section
February 12              Gateway Lecture: Michelle Warren, "The Postcolonial Past"
February 15              No lecture (President’s Day)
February 17              Section: Paper writing workshop on “How to Compose a Successful Problem Paper”
February 22              Lecture: Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (pp. 186-261). Writing assignment #3 (Problem Paper I) due.
February 24              Section.
March 1              Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais I (“Guigemar” to “Les Deus Amanz”)
March 3              Section.
March 8              Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais II (“Yonec” to “Eliduc”)
March 10              Section. Writing assignment #4 (Problem Paper II) due.
March 15-17              Spring Break
March 22              Lecture: Mandeville’s Travels [lecture given by Nedda Mehdizadeh]
March 24              Section. Workshop: “How to Write an Effective First Paragraph.”
March 25              Gateway Lecture: Marissa Greenberg, "Writing and Space"
March 29               Lecture: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
March 31              Section.
April 5              Lecture: Henry V, Acts 1-3.
April 7              Section. First paragraph of final Problem Paper due.
April 12              Lecture: Henry V, Acts 4-5.
April 14              Section. Peer Review Workshop.
April 19              Lecture: The Tempest Acts 1-3
April 21              Section: Aimé Césaire, A Tempest (The Tempest pp. 246-54).
April 23              Final Problem Paper (5 pages) due by noon.
April 26              Lecture: The Tempest Acts 4-5
April 28              Review Session (led by TAs, in MPA 309)
TBA              Final examination


Steve Muhlberger said...

"As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive..."

That paragraph is inspiring.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thank you Steve. Sometimes, even after all these years of teaching, I need to remind myself of the mutual commitment that makes the classroom really work. It's too easy to go into autopilot...

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for posting this. I also used Song of Roland in my first Medieval 'English' Literature course, largely because I liked the irony of the earliest, best manuscripts of THE French National Epic being produced in Britain. What's your approach to it for this class?

An easier question: I've been using Hanning and Ferrante maybe out of loyalty for the alma mater, but I've been thinking of switching to the Burgess, maybe just for portability's sake. How'd you decide on H&F?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You pretty much nailed my approach to the Song of Roland: the fact that the great epic of France should have found its earliest written form in England in Anglo-Norman French. A recurring theme of the course is also heroism's failures. I love the poem's last lines, when the Methuselah-like Charlemagne -- told to pick up and fight some more Saracens -- complains how weary his life is. I've never taught the text as part of this particular course, though: I'm including it this time around especially because Michelle Warren will be speaking about it when she visits GW in Feb. to talk about the postcolonial past.

As to the Hanning and Ferrante edition, I just love it. The translations are beautiful, and the short essays that follow each essay are each a tiny masterpiece. I know many people use Burgess instead but I am very attached to this particular edition. Also, even though it is so cheaply made that the binding often gives out on my students' copies halfway through the semester, by some miracle mine has endured in good condition for 15+ years. The gods have given me a sign.

Karl Steel said...

I love the poem's last lines
Me too! Tied for favorite with the chilling ending of the Aenied, when Aeneas, having completely given himself up to his destiny (and thus no longer having any self at all), sends Turnus's soul howling down to Hades.

theswain said...

Great texts to choose!

Re: Song of Roland, not only that lovely myth of the this "French epic" being attested the earliest in an English manuscript in Anglo-Norman French, but what always gets me about Roland is that it is a story about Charlemagne LOSING, fighting "infidel Muslims" in Spain. But according to good ol' Billy from Malmesbury the tale is first told on the eve of Hastings to William so that he and his men might draw courage in the coming battle. So we have Normans not long removed from their Norse roots appropriating a French text about in part a religious war and applying it to a Christian invasion of another Christian nation and applying it to themselves. I love that!

The Normans were supreme myth makers and I'm a little surprised you didn't include Wace and/or The Brut or the Norman appropriation of the British and English history as if it were their history in order to justify their rule.

With Steve, that paragraph is inspiring, and what a great class...wish I were in it.

Karl Steel said...

So we have Normans not long removed from their Norse roots appropriating a French text about in part a religious war and applying it to a Christian invasion of another Christian nation and applying it to themselves. I love that!
GREAT reading! I'm ripping this off, with suitable attribution, next time I teach Roland (next Fall I guess)

lisa schamess said...

as i spend my time indoors a few miles from you, preparing for the second time to teach my high school level Monsters of British Literature course at Emerson Prep, I can assure you that your syllabus and ideas will be much-plundered--uh, appreciated. Very intriguing is the idea that the central British texts you are teaching are essentially about Elsewhere, and that British identify remains a moving target.

Happy to share my syllabus in return, whenever i find my thumb drive, which like the TS has disappeared. Here, for the nonce, is my reading list:

-Beowulf (Heaney)
-Arthurian excerpts
-Richard III
-Shelley's Frankenstein
-Stoker's Dracula
-Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde
-Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks, Lisa! Here is hoping you are not at the level of stir crazy we are in this household, where two soft frisbees are zinging everywhere. Looking forward to seeing your syllabus.

lisa schamess said...

and apropos today's post...as a fellow member of the Tribe, it will interest you to know that among the 'monsters' I focus on in Chaucer are the Jews, as per the Prioress's Tale, and then of course we examine the dainty, pleasure-loving, corrupt Prioress herself...which one is really the bloodsucker, as Chaucer sees it? )and my kid is 11, so the week has been tolerable...how's the lizard?)