Friday, January 23, 2009


[figure 1: A view of Lake Erie, from Hamburg's public beach. I took this photo on a chilly day this past November.]

by Mary Kate Hurley

(Speaking of beginnings, don't miss JJC's post below, on a beginning we've all been watching the past few days.)

Despite the chill in the air and the snow on the ground here in New York, spring semester always puts me in mind to think about beginnings. Spring reminds me that when it comes to my medieval interests, it all started in the spring – in this case, spring 2002. My first Old English class started seven years ago this past Wednesday – and every year, I’ve grown more certain that if the course caught my interest, it was largely because of how difficult it was. I’d never learned a language before, truth be told – French had been part of my growing up, present both in and out of school thanks to my mother’s background as former French professor. And anyone who’s been through the American school system knows that it’s a rare thing to really learn English grammar. I joke about it, but I think I really did learn modern English grammar in my Old English class – I wonder if others have had that experience? I certainly didn’t know the difference between a nominative and a genitive (in terms of what the words meant, at any rate), and I don’t think I’d ever heard of the dative before. It was like a revelation, really: modern English just made so much more sense after taking Old English, from the past tense of verbs to the use of apostrophes to indicate possession. Grammar rules had reasons – who knew?

So awhile back, Jeffrey invited us to talk about what we're teaching this semester -- and now, finally, I can make my contribution to that discussion. This semester is pretty exciting for me, as I’m beginning my career in teaching literature, after five semesters teaching freshman composition. If you're familiar with my academic preoccupations, the way I plan to begin the semester won’t surprise you.

Columbia’s English department has recently instituted a new course for graduate students to teach. It functions as a kind of introduction the English major. Essentially, we cover various genres of literature (the triad of poetry, drama, prose), and critical methodologies for understanding and interpreting them. It’s a wide ranging class, in which a professor lectures for an hour once a week, and then graduate students teach a section of seminar that meets for two hours, also once a week, and covers more material than the lectures do. It’s a big course, and looks scary from the outside, but it’s not meant to be an in-depth study of any one period or method – it’s just introductions, making acquaintances, and learning to engage with texts in ways that are meaningful to current critical discourses.

All that aside, I wanted to start with something that would put everyone on the same level. I can’t teach literature without finding some way to put something medieval, or even better Old English, into it. I couldn’t even teach writing without using medieval references to illustrate writing points (like the idea of “auctoritee,” borrowed happily from Chaucer). My opening class? I think I’m going to start with something I know intimately, but am utterly unable to understand (yes, one honors thesis, one masters thesis, and countless translations later, I still don’t understand this poem – I doubt I ever really will). The idea here is to start from a place where there is no background information, to look closely at what can be understood without a sense of the context of a piece. So I’ll start with the manuscript: what can we tell just from looking at this text, as it appears on the page? Then, I hand out a modern edition of the poem (in old English, of course). I’m assuming no one will be able to read it. But if you know that it’s an edition of the MS we’ve been looking at, then what can you say about the text now? With a little luck, I’ll be treated to a rousing chorus of “It’s poetry!” The fun part will be discussing why we can say that now, if we couldn’t tell before. It allows discussion of editorial practice, and will hopefully allow us to talk a bit about assumptions concerning how poetry “looks.” Also: a great moment to point out alliteration, caesurae and the like.

From there, we move to a translation (I’m still deciding which to use, so any suggestions would be appreciated!), and what becomes an exercise in close reading of what the poem says, and how we arrive at conclusions about the techniques it is using to do so. Of course, I’ll close the class with a mini-lecture on the cultural and historical context of the poem, and hopefully that will spur a few more minutes of discussion and questions about how we can understand the poem in its literary and historical contexts. Ideally, it’ll be a fun exercise to think about how we approach poems, what we bring to the table in analysis, and how to think about a poem without immediate reference to the author’s biography or even any historical context. Most of all, I’m hoping it will get everyone talking early on in the class, as they will presumably all be coming in at the same level of knowledge concerning the poem in question.

In a class about introductions, you see, I’m planning to introduce them to the poem I’ve spent far too much time reading, thinking, writing and talking about, on ITM, OENY and elsewhere. My first real literature class? I’m teaching The Wanderer.

cross posted at OENY.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

What a great idea for a first session. The "Myths of Britain" course that I posted about earlier in the month can serve as the gateway to the major (we give our students many options, including a "Literature of the Americas" version of the course, or a two course survey sequence). Our first class is given over to (among other, related things) a close reading of "The Wanderer" -- mainly for the losty world it opens up, but also for its staging of that past as lost (a recurring theme in the literature I've assembled for the syllabus).

I have never found a satisfying translation: "The Wanderer" awaits its modern poet. So I use Michael Alexander's Ezra Poundian version, because at least it attempts something inventive (unlike the earthbound, dreary, faithful translations that are among the other choices).

Eileen Joy said...

You know, Mary Kate, given your enduring fascination with this poem, I wonder if you shouldn't be its next translator/editor? Or maybe experiment with translating parts of it online? You're right about not really learning grammar in American public schools [although I am old enough to maybe have been in some of the last middle school classes where the diagramming of sentences was assigned]; I learned grammar in my college Latin courses and then when I took Old English as a PhD student, I already knew what a genitive and nominative [and my favorite, the ablative] case was; my fellow students did not. It was pretty funny.

Matt said...

The photo accompanying your post is stunning! And, so directly does the image convey solitude that the photo could well become integral to the students' "translation" of the strange OE poem whose "earth-stepper" speaks from/into unearthly solitude. Will you be presenting the image with the text?

Very interested in how the students take to your thoughtful approach...

Lucia said...

I learned modern English grammar in my Latin class (and I think many of my classmates would say the same thing).

On the subject of inserting medieval literature into non-medieval courses ... I've definitely brought in medieval texts for analysis in freshman composition courses. But I envy you your fascination with "The Wanderer". The text I obsess about is Andreas Capellanus's De Amore (which has been the subject of seminar papers, a master's thesis ... and now a dissertation chapter), but, despite my best efforts, that does NOT work well in non-medieval courses (or even in medieval courses, imho, if you only have one day to spend on it).

Karl Steel said...

By now, MKH, you may have done this class already? I'd love to hear a report on it.

I second Eileen's suggestion that (at least) the translation you provide be your own. You might then bring in some other translations and then talk about (something near and dear to you) translation theory. While they don't have to the theory themselves, nor will they have to do OE (in an introductory course), they can, by discussing the different choices [accompanied by the relevant entries from an OE dictionary], learn the most essential, most difficult skill for literary study: close reading. While such a class project would require a LOT of prep work on your part, I think it'd be off, and it might even help you think through your diss. in some more detail.