Monday, January 10, 2011

Back to Chaucer

by J J Cohen

Though he died in 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer trumps any contemporary zombie in his ability to persevere beyond death: 610 years postmortem and still going strong. I'll be teaching his works at 12:45 today, for the 16th time since I arrived at GW in 1994. Fortunately for both me and my students, I've yet to become bored. The course always proves quite popular as well, generally closing at 25 on the third or fourth day of registration. That means that the majority of students seated in my class want to be seated in my class.

Below is my syllabus. A few changes have taken place since last I taught the course: it's no longer a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) class. The reason is simple: the course still mandates writing (it's in an English Department, after all), but I realized the WID designation did nothing to help those who enrolled in the class, since the vast majority had already fulfilled that requirement before they registered. Now I've retooled the course slightly for greater emphasis upon language work, and for thinking about interpretive techniques. I've cleared more space for close reading by not adopting a secondary text (in the past I've often used Chaucer: An Oxford Guide to good effect). I had considered taking David Wallace's excellent suggestion at NCS Siena and teaching the Physician's Tale first, but just couldn't part with pairing the Manciple's Tale with it in a "failed stories" day right after spring break.

As a late addendum, I also gave my students a link to this useful post by Derrick Pitard on Computer Common Sense.



This course examines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in all their complexity, perversity, and artfulness. We will be especially attentive to Chaucer's explorations of identity and the ways in which his texts envision various kinds of community. This course stresses the importance of language work to comprehension and explores the scholarly modes through which Chaucer may be analyzed. All primary readings are in Middle English.

The mission of this course is fourfold:
  1. to enable you to read Middle English fluently
  2. to hone your critical, linguistic and persuasive skills through careful, text-based analysis of literature within its historical context
  3. to introduce you to contemporary scholarly methods of studying Chaucer and the medieval period
  4. 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. Read the assigned work before class and bring the text with you. Give the professor, the TA, and your fellow classmates your full attention. Be present: do not chat, text, or surf the internet. Remain in the room until the class 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 be able to:
  1. translate Middle English into a contemporary idiom
  2. identify key literary concepts and apply them to medieval texts
  3. apply techniques of critical analysis (especially close reading) to a variety of genres, including scholarly essays
  4. understand contemporary approaches to literary and cultural studies
Class attendance and participation; four writing exercises; two midterm exams; final exam. Missed assignments cannot be made up; late assignments are not accepted. These assessments will count towards the total of your grade in these proportions:
Participation            10
    Ex. #1 (translation)        3
    Ex. #2 (trans. + analysis)    5
    Ex. #3 (close reading)        7
    Ex. #4 (critical essay analysis)        15
    Midterm I            15
    Midterm II            20
    Final                25

You will also have the opportunity of earning two points of extra credit by attending a special lecture on Friday March 11. Details will be announced in class.

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 is a serious offense and is always reported to the Academic Integrity Office 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 The best way to avoid a violation of the Code: do not use the internet for this class; if you do, cite your sources.

Disability statement: If you require accommodations based on disability, contact Prof. Cohen. Disability Support Services (Marvin Center 242, 994 8250, is available to assist you as well.

Suggested Electronic Resource: METRO (Middle English Teaching Resources Online). In its “Chaucer” section this website offers pronunciation, comprehension and vocabulary drills that will enable you to master Middle English quickly.

Schedule of Readings: Readings are from Canterbury Tales are in the Riverside edition, ed. Larry Benson. You should not purchase a translation of the tales. It will impede your ability to work with the Middle English original.

10 Jan        Introduction: Chaucer's Life, Language and World
12 Jan        The General Prologue
Writing exercise for January 19: Today you will be assigned five lines of the General Prologue to rewrite (1) in a faithful translation into Modern English, then (2) in Modern English but with no poetic language (no similes or other figures of speech).
17 Jan        no class (MLK Day)
19 Jan    Wife of Bath's Prologue
    Writing exercise #1 due in class.
24 Jan        Wife of Bath's Tale
Writing exercise #2 assigned: translation of short Middle English passage with analytical paragraph on themes and context.
26 Jan        Pardoner's Prologue and Tale
Writing exercise #2 due in class.
31 Jan        Knight's Tale (parts 1 & 2)
Writing exercise #3 assigned: two passages of Middle English for close reading and thematic analysis.

2 Feb        Knight's Tale (parts 3 & 4)
Writing exercise #3 due in class.   
7 Feb        Miller's Tale       
9 Feb        Midterm Exam I   
14 Feb        Reeve's Tale, Cook's Tale
16 Feb      Man of Law's Tale
21 Feb        no class (President’s Day)
23 Feb        Workshop: How to Evaluate a Scholarly Argument
Writing Ex. #4 assigned (evaluation of scholarly argument within a critical essay, 3pp, due in class March 9)
28 Feb        Clerk's Tale
2 March    Merchant's Tale
7 March    Squire's Tale
9 March    No class. Writing Ex. #4 due by 2 PM.
11 March    GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies (GW MEMSI) Conference “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods” at the Marvin Center. You will have the chance to earn extra credit by attending one of the sessions. Details announced in class.
14-16 March    Spring Break (read Chaucer on the beach)
21 March    Physician's Tale, Manciple's Tale
23 March    Franklin's Tale
28 March     Midterm Exam II
30 March    Shipman's Tale
4 April        Prioress's Tale
6 April        Monk’s Tale, Tale of Sir Thopas
11 April    Nun's Priest's Tale
13 April    Second Nun's Tale
18 April    Canon's Yeoman's Tale
20 April    catch-up day, if needed
25 April     Chaucer's Retraction and Course Retrospect   
TBA    Final examination


Anonymous said...

I like how much work you're doing on translation exercises with this class, Jeffrey. I hope to teach an all-Chaucer class in the near future and I was wondering: have you ever come upon (and given to students) a list of vocab words that represent something like "the most common words found in Chaucer that students might now know," etc.? I've always thought it might be useful to distribute something like that to students at the beginning of the semester, have them memorize the vocabulary in the first week of classes, have a vocab test, etc. But I don't know if anybody has ever put together a handout of most frequent ME words from, say, the Canterbury Tales that students might not know just by looking at them.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Good question. My first Chaucer course was at the U of Rochester with Tom Hahn. He had a great handout of common Middle English words for us to memorize, and began the classes during the first few weeks with a quiz on this vocabulary. I've never done this myself, though, because I am afraid that in teaching Middle English as if it were a foreign language it will seem stranger than it should: that is, I want students to think of Middle English as ENGLISH, not as a foreign language.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has used such a handout, though, esp. if it has proven successful.