by J J Cohen
Because I have an inadequate sense of shame, I've shared here in the past examples of pedagogy gone wrong. Today, though, I'd like to provide a positive example of what can happen when you discard the habitual structures of teaching and attempt something novel.
Though it hardly seems possible, I've been teaching my "Myths of Britain" course for three years (evidence here, here and here). A rethinking of the hoary and ubiquitous "Intro to Brit Lit I" course, "MoB" emphasizes the polyglot and multicultural matrix from which English literature emerged, as well as the intimacy of textuality to community. The class has challenged me profoundly. I don't ban laptops, on the theory that if I'm engaging enough then the 90 students in the room will focus on me rather than their Facebook updates. I do lecture somewhat, but we also have wide-ranging and open conversations: trying to control what we cover with so many participants is quite an exhausting job. The class meets once a week as a collective, then breaks into sections of 15 to work closely on analysis through writing. Students are also required to attend at least one Gateway Lecture, a talk by an expert in a relevant field of criticism -- my idea being that "theory" isn't an add-on bestowed to students only in upper division literature courses, but fundamental, a practice that renders the encounter with medieval and early modern literature deeper, more rigorous, and more fun. Surprisingly, I've found that most students attend all three of these special lectures. Finally, in addition to five writing assignments and a final exam, students must see a production of one of the Shakespeare plays we study. This semester it was Henry V, just closing its run at DC's Shakespeare Theatre (where it was doubled with Richard II, a resonant way to present the two plays).
Those requirements seem onerous when I type them out, and in fact the course is demanding -- especially for an introductory level class. But like most things in life that pose a challenge, students who take "MoB" value the experience (and get to refer to themselves as MoBsters). Their enthusiasm for the material is palpable in our discussions. It's the kind of class that even if I arrived without notes, with nothing but my book, we could have a spirited conversation that would take us through the 75 minutes. I am also fortunate to have as my teaching partners three extraordinary graduate students (Lowell Duckert, Jessica Frazier, Nedda Mehdizadeh) who are phenomenally gifted teachers. I am full of admiration for each of them.
In its third iteration, though, the no-longer-new MoB class was starting to come too easily. I grew afraid that I would stop pushing myself as a teacher as hard as I push the students. Halfway through the term I devised, in consultation with the graduate students, a pedagogical experiment.
Last week I gave my first lecture on Henry V. We examined King Henry as a brutal avatar of Alexander the Great (cited explicitly numerous times in the play) and Arthur (mentioned only in Mistress Quickly's blunder of Falstaff going to "Arthur's bosom," but a figure who haunts the drama, especially because so much is made of Henry's Welshness via birth in -- of all places -- Monmouth). We've focused repeatedly in the course on the lack of enduring differentiation between heroes and monsters: Beowulf, Roland, Mandeville, Gawain, Arthur share more with their foes than they can ever acknowledge. The students were primed for such a complexity-loving reading of Henry, and it was my mission to systematically shut such possibility down. I argued for a straightforwardly patriotic if rather Machiavellian protagonist, sort of what Olivier delivers in his WW II version of the play (a jingoistic paean possible only through radical cutting), or what Greenblatt provides in his infamously anti-subversive reading in "Invisible Bullets." Such a Henry is true to the play, of course, while failing to be the full truth of the drama. By the close of the class I had gained communal assent that Henry is flat agitprop, the play a relic of Elizabethan country love. I ended by stating that next class Nedda, Lowell and Jessica would prove me completely wrong.
So in section last week the graduate students worked with the undergraduates to gather evidence to refute my reading. Lecture this week began with a showing the St Crispin Day speech from the Kevin Branagh version of the play (conveniently ending before they could glimpse the devastating battle scenes that seem to be a post-Falklands indictment of British militarism). I asked my students this question: "Henry's dangerous skill is to deploy emotionally compelling rhetoric that can move people to the point at which they are willing to die for him, to perish for England's sake. What could be less complex -- and more frightening to us -- than that?"
I then sat with the students and invited the graduate students to rebut me. Which they did, with so much skill that most of the time all I could do was nod in affirmation. Together they stressed the nuances of Henry's performances; the knotty temporality of the play; the ways in which the drama literally undermines itself with the squabbles among the English, Welsh, Irish, and Scots. Then, hoping to be called out for being Henry-like, I answered back, stating that I had been sitting in the audience, and that I could very fairly represent what we heard, mostly an attempt to add complexity to a place it did not lurk. The students did not protest my representing them like that ... until I turned it back upon them, asking if they really wanted to allow me to speak for them. Call me out on pulling a Prince Hal, I told them. That's when they let me have it, in the best possible way.
I hope that we drove home to our students the knowledge that literature is complicated enough to sustain divergent readings, but that some readings are stronger (more evidence-based) than others; that rhetoric can often work through emotional appeal, or an appeal to common sense, but such maneuvers aren't (even according to the play) necessarily to be trusted; that they shouldn't without some hesitation trust me, just as they shouldn't trust any authority figure who tells them what to think or how they feel.
It was a great class.