Thursday, September 06, 2007

Chaucer and Writing in the Disciplines

A few years ago my university initiated a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program to ensure that the attention to writing given in the first year of study continued thereafter. I'm naturally skeptical of all initiatives, especially when they come bearing acronyms, but I have to say that the WID program is very well thought out pedagogically. In fact, WID has changed how I teach.

A WID course emphasizes comprehension through writing and revision within discipline-appropriate modes. In a way most literature courses achieve these objectives already, but a true WID experience entails a consistent reliance upon writing as a mode of analysis, especially through frequent small exercises -- and not just the single big research paper which is the crowning jewel of traditional classes. WID courses move away from the examination model of evaluation completely, something that after years of grading near indecipherable handwriting I have found refreshing. (I tell my students that some day their kids will mock them for having had to compose anything in longhand; the in-class examination is one of the few spaces where this archaic practice still unfolds).

I'd always relied on the exam to ensure that comprehension of Middle English passages was what it should be in my Chaucer class. This semester I am finally teaching a transformed version of the course under the WID rubric. I still do a complete Canterbury Tales, but instead of two midterms and a quiz we have five writing assignments, all of which are completed back at the dorm to free up more class time (though we will talk about them in class to ensure that the students' labor is integrated into what we do in the classroom; I want these exercises to be central to our endeavors, not annoying little tasks completed in spare time).

Here are the five:
1. Take five lines of the General Prologue and rewrite as a faithful translation into Modern English, then into Modern English but with no poetic language (no figures of speech, nothing fancy, just a statement of bare meaning).

2. Translation of two quotations from the CT with an analytical paragraph on themes and context. Rubric:
(1) Briefly identify the passage by work, speaker, and context.
(2) Translate the passage into good Modern English.
(3) Paying close attention to the images, structure, and language of the passage, explain its significance to the themes of the tale in which it appears.
(4) Making specific reference to other tales, explain the significance of the passage to the themes of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.
Be ANALYTICAL: do not merely summarize plot.

3. Three passages of Middle English analyzed thematically
Rubric as above, but no translation.

4. Evaluation of a scholarly article.

5. Opening paragraph and one page prospectus for final paper.

We help studnets along the way through workshops and peer review, so this five assignment arc is a guided process through which my TA and I will get to know our student's strengths and weaknesses in writing and interpretation very well.

I'm also using, for the third time, the fairly new Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. I like this compendium because it helps us achieve one of our course objectives: understanding how various scholars analyze Chaucer, preferably so that we can disagree with them and mount persuasive interpretations of our own. To that end the big (15pp) research paper has this rubric:
The objectives of this paper are twofold: to acquaint you with the ways that contemporary medievalists interpret Chaucer, and to hone your own analytical skills while making a convincing argument for a reading of one of the Canterbury Tales.

Choose a tale that you have found especially rich and provocative. Reread the narrative carefully, making notes about the themes and problems of the text. Carefully read the relevant notes on your chosen tale at the back of the book (these notes are broken down by line number, so you will find yourself flipping back and forth between notes and text).

Now find two recent (published within the last seven to ten years) critical articles about your chosen tale, each of which offers a distinct interpretation. Good ways to unearth useful scholarly criticism include:
• the MLA International Bibliography (can be accessed via the Gelman web page, most easily via the "English and American Language Research Guide" [])
• Project Muse (a cluster of scholarly journals in electronic form, easily searchable:
• JSTOR (another such cluster, though these journals tend to be at least five years old:
• the essays in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)
• the bibliographies and index in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)

Not especially useful or reliable for a project such as this would be a Google search or most internet sites.

Your task in this paper is to analyze critically each scholarly article, demonstrating both its strengths and its weaknesses. Throughout this section of your essay you must keep Chaucer's text in mind, quoting from it to support your analysis of the two articles. You must then argue your own interpretation of the tale, making good use of the two essays but pushing their analysis farther – either to a place at which they meet or (even better) towards an interpretation neither anticipates but to which you, through reliance upon Chaucer's text, can confidently bring the line of argument.

You will be graded upon clarity and competence of writing; knowledge and critical use of your chosen Canterbury tale; depth of engagement with and understanding of the two scholarly articles; originality and persuasiveness of your interpretation.

I've framed the research project this way since last year, and students have actually enjoyed the assignment. This narrowed exercise has seemed so much more rewarding to them than the usual, vague "Go away and write me a good essay about a Canterbury Tale" approach.

We'll see how this all turns out, but I've been very pleased to have the chance to rethink how I teach the course -- my absolute favorite to teach.


highlyeccentric said...

oh, wow. i envy your students that last essay rubric! that's just brilliant... plenty of creative scope, and yet a very detailed description of what you want from them.

i'm jealous.

Karl Steel said...

This post is a godsend. I'm doing my first (of many I hope) Chaucer course next semester, and I'm going to rip this post off shamelessly.

Right now: Prepping classes on the FrT, SGGK Fitt III, and Jacob and Esau.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful. I have two questions to facilitate my own shameless ripoff (or spirited Chaucerian adaptation, take your pick). -Is the course aimed at students from a particular year? -Which Chaucer text do you use?

Right now: prepping for a comp course, which I must do better to make interesting for all involved.

Karl Steel said...

Prepping classes on the FrT,

Er, make that FranT. Eventually I'll be a Chaucerian...

Question I think of behalf of BLB and me: anyone want to comment on this edition of the CT, the Fisher and Allen edition?

Anonymous said...

Yes, like BLB, I'm interested to know what level of students this course is geared towards. It seems kind of advanced for undergrads, what with all of the active engagement with secondary scholarly literature that you are asking of them. However, I suspect it is undergrads, because you mention them doing some of the work at their "dorms." If it is for undergrads, why do you feel the understanding of current critical discourse around these tales is more important than a course steeped in close-reading of the CT and one centered on students (hopefully) arriving at interpretations independent of scholarly consensus on the Tales? Also, as an aside, I love the work you are having them do with translating ME into modern English. I think we need to do more of that in classes on Middle English literature.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm happy to have anyone grab and transform any part of what I've offered!

The course is for undergraduates. Though in theory it should be for any interested student no matter the level or major, in practice it has proven so popular that mostly senior English majors get in (they register first). That helps explain why it is pitched at a fairly high level ... but I have to say the few sophomores who have made it in over the years have never struggled more than their more experienced counterparts.

Anonymous, you wrote:
why do you feel the understanding of current critical discourse around these tales is more important than a course steeped in close-reading of the CT and one centered on students (hopefully) arriving at interpretations independent of scholarly consensus on the Tales?
I disagree that a choice has to be made here. My CT course is in fact my most close-reading obsessed class. I --and, I believe, my students -- find the readings in criticism (which are not so frequent or so dense as to be overwhelming) to be catalysts to deeper understandings of the texts, and aids to greater confidence in their own explications. In a word, it's useful to have (good and bad) models. We also look at criticism historically, so that it isn't just what's written in the past ten years that appears in discussion (the research paper emphasizes the recent, but the class discussion and the assignments move from Kitteredge onwards). Here, for example, is my old handout on the Pardoner's interpretive history. It is utterly fascinating to students to see how the pilgrims and their reception can be time bound, but with certain timless trajectories behind them.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oh, and as to texts: I use the Riverside for two reasons: nostalgic, because Benson was my diss. director; and practical, because I have 20 years of marginalia in it. I order the paperback version for my students -- way overpriced, but less money by far than the complete works. I haven't looked at the revised Fisher yet; it does look enticing.

Karl Steel said...

arriving at interpretations independent of scholarly consensus on the Tales

Is there a tale with scholarly consensus? So far as I can determine, there's consensus about problems and sites of interest, but not of interpretation.

I had a good exercise in my Med Lit class on Tuesday of introducing them to a good but somewhat sloppy article on colonialism in SGGK. It's an argument that figures SGGK, particularly Fitt II, in relation to the English colonial project in North Wales in the later 14th c. I described the argument, asked them what was wrong with it, and how they might fix it. The exercise worked nicely t teach them not to trust their sources entirely; it was also an exercise in building on secondary sources to make a new argument. Worked pretty well.

So there's one excellent (to my mind) pedagogical reason for bringing in secondary material with undergrads.

Also, as an aside, I love the work you are having them do with translating ME into modern English. I think we need to do more of that in classes on Middle English literature.

I did this on Tuesday, too. To take attendance, I just went through the roll, asking each student in turn to translate a line of SGGK into modern English. Tough stuff, but they had the glosses in front of them (from Cawley and Anderson), and some of them did okay.

I feel that the Riverside is just too much for undergrads. Next semester, I plan to have my Riverside for prepping lectures, but I'll use the Fisher and Allen otherwise. I suspect the glosses are somewhat more generous in the F and A too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow-up, JJ Cohen. Your point about how "close-reading" is going on in your class whether it is being applied to Chaucer or a scholar writing on Chaucer is well taken. I guess I was just thinking about how often the greatest thing about teaching undergrads is how they come to these literary texts so innocent of current (or past) trends in interpreting them, and throughout the quarter a couple of smart undergrads can offer an insightful interpretation of a character, scene, symbol, etc. that takes your breath away with how such interpretations make complete sense yet they are totally the antithesis of what (say) twenty years of scholarship have said about that character, symbol, etc. Also, as a teacher I often know those students likely would not have had the courage to offer up those interpretations if they knew what current trends in scholarship "tell" them such characters, scenes, symbols, etc. are supposed to mean. As you know, undergrads usually take authority very seriously (both our own, as we stand at the front of the classroom, and that of any printed texts we put before them) and if you give them scholarly articles to read such articles often bewitch them into thinking those readings are the "right way" to read these texts (no matter how often we tell them otherwise, unfortunately).

Anonymous said...


I stopped using Riverside for undergraduates years ago--it's now 20 years out of date, costs almost $100, and isn't glossed with undergraduates in mind.

I switched to Jill Mann's Penguin Classics edition of the Tales for a Tales-only course. Up to date apparatus, less prim glosses, and a price of $17.

The next time I teach a "works" Chaucer course, I'm going to use Norton's Chaucer bundle: Kolve and Olson's Tales, Barney's Troilus (with the Filostrato on the facing page), and Lynch's Dream Visions and Other Poems. $30 for all three.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your teaching tools! I teach Medieval Literature seminars to first year students and I have started to introduce modes/types of writing that are different from the traditional academic essay. I am doing this primarily to encourage students to think/write regularly, so that writing becomes part of the critical and learning process rather than just the final phase or result. I know this isn't a new idea and some of my (more dedicated) students have given me positive feedback on the extra workload, especially on writing journal entries (they say it gives them more time to think and wards off last-minute panic when it comes to write their essays). Journals, free-writing, pre-writing, production of essay plans etc. are not assessed but they receive feedback on them.
At some point you say, 'We help studnets along the way through workshops and peer review, so this five assignment arc is a guided process through which my TA and I will get to know our student's strengths and weaknesses in writing and interpretation very well.'. Could you please say a bit more about this, especially the workshops? It would be extremely helpful if you could!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Rob, the paperback version of the Riverside was somewhat updated upon its publication approx. 5 years ago. But clearly I do need to shop around and compare texts -- there's no excuse for my inertia, other than being comfortable with the edition. The glosses are, it's true, not all that full and rather prudish. Larry Benson did argue that Chaucer invented modesty in literature, and those Riverside glosses certainly accomplish that!

The course would be very different if it were offered with, say, freshmen in mind. When I teach my freshman seminar on Arthurian Literature, we move much more slowly through the materials, keep secondary stuff to a minimum, concentrate more on comprehension and careful reading. The students in my Chaucer class tend to have these skills well developed already, since they've already taken a theory course ("Critical Methods") and have also been participants in many other departmental courses where the theory is integrated fairly seamlessly into the class. That's a long way of saying I have the luxury of teaching astute readers. There's no real uniformity or a tiresome predictability to the readings they bring; they do surprise me quite frequently with their insight. At yesterday's class, for example, someone asked about how Chaucer deploys clothing to convey character, and we wound up in a far reaching conversation about objects and subjects, sumptuary law, external embodiment.

The workshops, rm, are practical: we use excerpts from student writing -- good and not so good -- handed in for the class in previous years to talk about what makes a strong opening paragraph, how to use the text as evidence, and so forth, stressing that the first critical reader of the essay must be the student, and that there are various modes for presenting persuasive arguments and interpretations. Having modeled how to do this through whole class discussion, we then have them break into small groups where they share their work and do peer critique. It sounds so basic to do this in an upper level class, but in fact the workshops are always praised in the course evaluations as having been, in retrospect, important moments. It also helps if you can talk to your students about your own writing as being a craft you are always trying to improve, so that students see that you are just as invested in making writing a lifelong process as you want them to be. What good writer ceases to agonize over words and modes of argument?

Anonymous said...

Ah, JJC, you mean that you use The Canterbury Tales Complete. Right now on Amazon it's $58.

Fisher and Allen is currently clocking in at $49 on Amazon. Not a huge savings over the CT Complete, but Fisher and Allen is (a) a sturdier book, (b) better/less primly glossed, and (c) more up to date in bibliographical terms. It does lack the extensive endnotes of the CT Complete--but then I've found that students never read those without prompting. (Something that putting a copy of Riverside on reserve takes care of handily.)

Mann's Penguin Classics edition is currently $12 on Amazon, $40-$46 cheaper than either CT Complete or Fisher/Allen. My students seemed to like Mann's version, and the cheap price tag gives me room to order other books for the syllabus as well. (For example, you could get Mann and Cooper's Oxford Guide to the CT for $45 on Amazon.)

Eileen Joy said...

What a great assignment; I plan to shamelessly steal it when I teach Chaucer again [spring 2009].

Liza Blake said...

NOW you let your students write papers!

(Sorry, it had to be said. I had so much I wanted to write while I was taking your Chaucer class it oozed into all my other papers that semester!)

Dr. Virago said...

This is a little like the approach I take to my upper division medieval survey. Who knew I was doing it WID style!

I used to give ME quizzes in Chaucer, but next semester I'm using your approach. What wonderful writing/translating tasks! Thanks for sharing Jeffrey!