Friday, January 09, 2009

As the new semester roars to life...

by J J Cohen

Herewith the syllabus for my spring semester course "Myths of Britain." It's a large class (78 students registered) that is designed for all students, not just English majors. This is my second time teaching it.

So, what are you teaching this semester?

spring semester, 2009
Professor Jeffrey J. Cohen

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 both art and a way to imagine social and individual identities. Students will enjoy works like Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf; various versions of the Arthurian myths; the lais of Marie de France; and two plays by Shakespeare.

Our objectives are 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 current 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

Course format: The course meets twice a week: on Mondays at 11:10 a.m. in MPA 310 for lecture, and on Wednesdays for discussion sections. Attendance at both lecture and section is mandatory.

Required books: (available from the GWU Bookstore)
Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton Critical edition)
Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances (trans. William Kibler)
Marie de France, Lais (trans. Hanning and Ferrante)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trans. Simon Armitage)
Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, volume 2
William Shakespeare, King Lear (Norton Critical edition)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Bedford Case Study edition)

1. Attend lectures and sections; participate in discussions; complete readings and assignments on time.
2. Reading quizzes: Monday lecture sessions will begin with a brief reading quiz. Lateness or absence from lecture is not an excuse for missing the quiz, and quizzes cannot be made up. The quizzes cumulatively take the place of a midterm examination.
3. Writing assignments: Four short but intense writing assignments culminate in a fifth, a 5pp “problem paper.” Detailed information about the assignments will be available in advance, and you will have ample opportunity to discuss the assignments in section.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Except for a documented medical reason, late work will not be graded. 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. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

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, 994 8250, is available to assist you.

Grading rubric:
Your grade for the course will be determined by adding together the following:
Attendance at one special lecture (see below) 5
Participation and attendance at section 15
Reading quizzes 25 (12x2 points each)
Four short but intense writing exercises 4 x 5 = 20 total
Final writing exercise 10
Final examination 25

Special lectures:
A focus of this course is how contemporary scholars analyze the literature of the medieval and early modern period. You are therefore required to attend at least one of the presentations that have been arranged through the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute: David Wallace speaking about "Writing after Catastrophe" in the Marvin Center amphitheatre on 1/30; Lytton Smith talking about monsters, the medieval, and his own poetry on 4/3; Stephanie Trigg of the University of Melbourne discussing the Order of the Garter on 4/24. All of these events are on Friday afternoons. Exact times and places will be announced in class and via Blackboard. Make sure you check in with a TA when you do attend. 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.

Code of Courtesy
Arrive on time with your cell phone silenced. Bring the appropriate book to class. Give the professor and your TA your full attention. 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.

Schedule of Readings and Assignments
January 12 Lecture: The Britain in England. Text: “The Wanderer” (handout; also on Blackboard)
January 14 Section: Introductions. “The Dream of the Rood” (please print out a copy via Blackboard and read before section meeting).
January 19 No lecture (MLK day)
January 21 Section: Comparison of opening lines of Beowulf in several translations. Short writing assignment #1 handed out (poetic language exercise).
January 26 Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney lines 1-1798. First assignment due in lecture.
January 28 Section
January 30 Special Lecture: David Wallace, “Writing after Catastrophe: Conceptualizing Literary History and the Boundaries of Europe”
February 2 Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 1799-end
February 4 Section: Seamus Heaney, “Translator’s Introduction.” Short writing assignment #2 handed out (close reading of passage).
February 9 Lecture: Chrétien de Troyes, The Knight with the Lion. Writing exercise 2 due.
February 11 Section
February 16 No lecture (President’s Day)
February 18 Section: Paper writing workshop on “How to Compose a Successful Problem Paper”
February 23 Lecture: Chrétien de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart.
February 25 Section. Writing assignment #3 (Problem Paper I) due.
March 2 Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais I (“Guigemar” to “Les Deus Amanz”)
March 4 Section.
March 9 Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais II (“Yonec” to “Eliduc”)
March 11 Section. Writing assignment #4 (Problem Paper II) due.
March 16-18 Spring Break
March 23 Lecture: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
March 25 Section. Critical paper assigned.
March 30 Lecture: Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, pp. 373-532
April 1 Section. First paragraph and prospectus of critical paper due.
April 3 Special Lecture: Lytton Smith (consult Blackboard for time and place)
April 6 Lecture: King Lear, Acts 1-3
April 9 Section
April 13 Lecture: King Lear, Acts 4-5.
April 15 Section
April 20 Lecture: The Tempest Acts 1-3
April 22 Section: Aimé Césaire, A Tempest
April 23 Critical paper due by 5 PM.
April 24 Special Lecture: Stephanie Trigg (consult Blackboard for time and place)
April 27 Lecture: The Tempest Acts 4-5
April 29 Section
TBA Final examination


dtkline said...

I've got three courses this term. Two are Gen Ed courses (121-Intro to Lit and 201 - World Masterpieces 1) and our required Intro to Theory (602) for MA students. I enjoy the lower division courses a lot, and this term for the first time I understand more concretely why they are necessary. My Medieval Survey (315) was canceled due to low enrollment for the first time ever (it's made for 112 straight years), and I think I know why. I hadn't taught 201 for several years and so didn't draw anyone to the 315--the first half of the world survey is one of our gateway courses and a few students usually follow me into other courses. But not this time, since I'd taken on other Gen Ed courses in the last few years.

Gotta keep those medievalists in the lower division and service courses to keep our upper division and grad courses alive.

Anyone else experiencing anything similar?

Adam Roberts Project said...

I'm on sabbatical this term. So I shall be teaching myself to ... oh, I don't know: to click my big toe and next toe together like clicking fingers. That should take me a term, plus I'll get to lie on the couch doing it. Yuk yuk yuk.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dan, we are lucky at GW in that our early courses (medieval and early modern) are the most in demand. It's been the contemporary literature that has found fewer students and those are the classes that have faced cancellation. In the case of one specific set of courses (AfAm lit), this fall off in enrollment is directly related to the fact that we used to have an introductory survey sequence on the subject, then moved it to an upper division sequence. All of a sudden our AfAm courses became underpopulated, so now we've restored the survey sequence. By the way, I very much like the multiplicity of survey sequences we offer our students here: Brit Lit 1&2; American Lit 1&2; Comedy and Tragedy (2 course sequence); AfAm Lit 1&2; Postcolonial Lit 1&2.

Any of these sequences can serve as the gateway to the English major (as can the English 40 I just gave a syllabus for, above); they are also very popular as general ed courses.

Adam: Rub it in why don't you??!

Anonymous said...

I'm teaching first-year composition and directing an independent study in Medieval and Early Renaissance lit. I was scheduled to teach Advanced Composition: Image, Sound, Text too, but it was canceled due to low enrollment. Instead, the department chair and dean decided I'm to draft a handbook for the English major, which will have the dual function of producing a much needed document for our majors and giving me a crash course in the ins and outs of my new academic home.

Karl Steel said...

I'm teaching ONLY ONE course this semester (and, knock on wood, I'm up for an award that might give me next year off altogether). Brooklyn College gives us 7 classes off before tenure: I took one in the Fall, and I'm taking 2 off this semester, with the intention of having a completed book draft by Kzoo. We'll see. Just to show that lucky duckies like me can whine too...dissertation to Book is proving more complicated than I thought it would be. Sometimes I wish I'd chosen something less ambitious than a first book on THE VERY STRUCTURE OF THE HUMAN THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE AGES. If Beowulf showed up right now, I'd beg him to rip off my typing arms.

Anyway, one class, beginning in 2 weeks, a grad Chaucer CTales seminar (with, ouch, 26 students! Can I export a few, cheap? "seminar," my eye...), meets Wednesday evenings, and several students from my Fall grad theory-review and prospectus-writing MA course are either taking the course and wishing very much that they could. How wonderful! My second year at BC, and my second CTales course: I expect it will still be fresh and exciting.

Jeffrey, if you're feeling frisky, give your students a map quiz on the first day. You may remember that I have my medieval (b)romance students a map question on a quiz and learned that students who read about romances set in Wales, Cornwall, and England tend not to take the trouble to look the locations. Sad? Maybe.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Although I'm always frisky in class (OK, not ALWAYS) the first one has come and gone ... so all 87 of the tykes are off the hook for a map quiz. I started with a brief PowerPoint that illustrated via maps a reverse history of the island of Britain, from today's (dis)United Kingdom back through the Empire at its fullest and back and back through the Danelaw and Rome and through Celtic peoples and through preCeltic migrations into prehistoric settlement maps and their links to continental settlements -- the point being that the island's sphere of influence expands and contracts, but is never really a geographical entity set apart from other lands.

Karl Steel said...

Nice work. Will you make that presentation accessible to the wider world at some point?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't think I can offer the maps presentation because I stile copyrighted material for it. BUT as the students walked in, I had a looping PowerPoint of a Flickr stream of photos tagged "myths" "britain" that offered an interesting visual commentary on the course's themes. Maybe I'll put that up since it is all photos that were offered for public viewing/use.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

stile = stole