Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Having to Stretch, Having Room: A Voyage of Brendan Lesson

Valhalla Rising, to set the mood

 "Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes."
 (Marx, Capital I.11, cadged from Malcolm Harris)

This semester, I'm teaching my first 3-hour, once-weekly class, an undergrad medieval comparative lit course. It runs from 6:30-9:10 every Monday, which I bisect with an optional but absolutely needed 15-minute break from roughly 7:45-8pm.

Three classes in and I'm loving it. It's not just that I have to wind myself up to teach this stuff only once instead of twice a week (and we know, at least I do, the emotional effort required to step into a classroom); it's what a long class does to my teaching.

For me and other talkers, a 75-minute class (or these thrice-weekly 50-minute classes I've heard rumor of) loves for me just to offload great blocks of ad-libbed information. And judging by my evals, this works. The letter arrives at some destination, if I'm just trying to convince my students that they're getting what they think is an education and, even more so, if I want them to think I'm smart. But it's obviously not our jobs to convince students that we deserve to be running the class.

Three hours of talking though? Doable, definitely, but far more obviously useless than in a regular-length class, or my name isn't Karl "Increase Mather" Steel. Quantitative differences have forced me to flip my classroom. I'm following the scientists who are following humanities teaching.

Below, I'll give you a map of the whole class. First, though, last night's favorite bit.

I showed them the Wikipedia page on The Voyage of Saint Brendan and gave them five or ten minutes to read it (either from the screen up front or from their phones) and to write down one key thing the wikipedia page missed, and--if they had time--why this thing matters for understanding the text. If you don't want to read the Wikipedia, because why?, it offers a very brief intro and then a 29-item list of the steps of the voyage. And that's it.

Here's a partial list of what the class turned up:

  • Birds are fallen angels, not just birds. 
  • Interactions between the people – the kisses for example, or the bowing, or the conversation. 
  • What Brendan thinks about Abbot Ailbe's silence, which he thinks too severe for human nature to bear. 
  • How Brendan lets God guide them to islands rather than travelling deliberately. 
  • All the stuff about don’t worry, god will keep us safe: gryphon eg. 
  • Jasconius: wikip doesn’t seem to understand that he is also the whale island. 
  • Omits the size of the sheep – giant holy land sheep who never get milked. 
  • Above all: the Psalms and the liturgy. Calendar and the solstice, Easter, Christmas. 

What champs! We could have kept going for another 20 minutes on this. Now, I told them the obvious: they were being tested on whether they'd done the reading, and also being given a practical lesson in Wikipedian inadequacies. They got all this. But then I unpacked a fun fact: we have 120+ extant manuscripts of the Voyage of Brendan, and translations into most European vernaculars. And a lot of the translations, or really, adaptations, do exactly what the Wikipedia article does, namely, they hush up the religious element and turn up the adventure. See some of this for example. What does this say about continuities between medieval and modern readers?

Keep reading for the complete lesson plan. And if you'd rather just skip to comments, do that, and let me know your classroom flipping tricks, because frankly this old talker is new to all this...fun. Note that my class has only 24 students, which strikes me as perfect for a 300-level undergrad course.

The whole plan:

  1. As students come in, to set a mood, I played a long scene from Valhalla Rising of warriors drifting at sea, mostly mute, filthy, and lost in the fog; 
  2. the medieval news: last week it was Richard III. This week it was the Pope's resignation (helped along by showing them Bruce Holsinger's blog) and then some Wonders of the East from the newly digitized Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (which means talking about the Ashburnham House fire);
  3. then, once I know I have a full complement, the Wikipedia thing;
  4. three five-minute student presentations. All smart and interesting. The first on animal guides; the second on ecology, conservationism, and sainthood; and the third on Christian allegory. Everyone had to write down a comment or question for every presenter, which meant a lively discussion until the break at 7:45;
  5. during the break, students who stuck around learned how to build a coracle;
  6. since mine might be the only medieval class the students take, I do a lot of "medieval ambassadorship"--or just show and tell--whenever I do take time to talk. Last night I showed them an Adam Roberts pun ("The Em-Bayeux Strikes Back") and then...explained the joke;
  7. boring discussion of the papers I had just graded. Had to be done, but this I hadn't quite planned on, so I reverted back to the old lecturing Karl. Will need to fix this next time;
  8. quick gesture at favorite bits from the immrama and echtrai, mostly from old issues of the Revue celtique available on Archive.org: Voyage of Snegdus and Mac Riagla; Voyage of Mael Duin; Voyage of the HĂși Corra; and the Voyage of Bran. This led into a brief discussion of medieval remix culture, and using TvTropes to undo the modern pretension of "originality";
  9. and finally, in-class writing, small group discussion, followed by reports back to the class.

Here were the questions:

  • Having read Bede's Life of Cuthbert and the Voyage of St. Brendan, what do you now know about Christian monastic asceticism, and what does this say about their conception about the good and the evil? What do they think someone needs to do to be holy, and why? [this required explaining the difference between asceticism and aestheticism]; 
  • Why is the Voyage precise on so many things (the size of the "iceberg" for example), but never about where things actually are (the relative position of the islands)? 
  • Why should being naked except for full-body hair be a sign of holiness? 

They got 10 minutes. They could write first about whichever one interested them, and all three if they could. One detailed response would be more than sufficient, though. Then groups of four had to try to synthesize an answer (which is always, usefully, impossible). Discussion had to be cut off, both in the small groups, and then when I finally let them go precisely at 9:10.

One more point! Because of all the in-class writing (which is ungraded but read and counts for 15% of their grade), and the presentation (which has a graded written component), I'm eliminating TWO short papers from my standard syllabus. Advantages abound: less to grade; they write more; they think about the reading more often, and possibly more deeply; and they have more time at home to work on their other classes. Which means I'm not the bad guy, and I'm stuck in grading jail a lot less. Everyone wins.

Next week we start four weeks on Gerald of Wales. I hope we all can keep it up!


Dali Clocks said...

HI Karl,

This was an incredibly valuable and helpful post. Thanks so much for sharing it. I wanted to ask if you have any advice for people stuck teaching larger classes (45 in my case....an awkward size) who feel they keep falling into too much lecture mode.

I'm in a different discipline (gender studies) teaching a 101 course to freshman and sophomore who mostly take it for the requirement. It's only the second year of teaching for me as a grad student (we have our own classes at this program) but I already want to tweak the class format significantly.

With a size like this, is there any way to achieve some of the lateral thinking and seminar-ish moments of intimacy while still doing the necessary concept work and managing the class?

Thanks and keep up the great work!

medievalkarl said...

thanks Dali, glad it's already useful. I've never taught a class that big, so I don't have *great* advice to give you. I do have colleagues who teach big classes though; I'll pester them for suggestions.

I'm guessing with 45 students you can't do individual presentations...but maybe, with 2 per class, assuming 2 classes a week and 13 weeks or so available (i.e., discounting opening week and finals), it could be done. Would the students be nervous about doing a 5-minute thing in front of the class? yes, probably, but still....

really, I'm joined the church of the almighty directed in-class writing. I'm betting this would be the trick for you. write + discussion; write + small group discussion + reconvene for class discussion. use the out-of-class reading to introduce them to the topics you want them to learn; use the in-class writing to guide them to key topics in the reading; use discussion to get them to think critically and creatively about those topics; use small group discussion to heighten the debates. At the least this would ensure: a) they do the reading; b) you have at least 1 fewer paper to grade; c) they spend less time in class furtively looking at their phones; d) which means less discipline, which means better evals. Ideally.

With gender studies, you can do modern-day stuff easily. Show them something and ask what [x] thinker or [y] concept would say about it. Get them to apply the concepts creatively, in other words (I'm doing the same thing this week in my grad lit theory class to introduce Horkheimer and Adorno).

Now, I'm speaking from what's a temporary place of success. Maybe in 3 weeks I'll say IT'S TOO MUCH JUST LECTURE. But try it: a lot more in-class writing. At least they'll get a good senseof the kinds of questions they're expected to pose of the material.

Bruce Holsinger said...

What a great post, Karl, and a fabulous example of how to use ubiquitous resources like Wikipedia in productive and helpful ways. I loved the natural fit between the text and the pedagogy--really nice!

medievalkarl said...

thanks Bruce! I have to confess that I'm now tempted to edit wikipedia pages to line them up with what I want my class to do...

Cynthia Camp said...

As someone who, as an undergrad (back in the day), had a professor who frequently taught 3-hour night classes and who always started those classes with a similar kind of directed writing, I can vouch (at least from the student end) for the pedagogical usefulness of directed writing for larger classes like those Dali Clocks is teaching. It's a trick I'm planning on adopting if I ever end up teaching in a three-hour block (which are rare at my institution).

bwhawk said...

Great post; it's nice to see this all laid out. I really like the breakup of class into segments, along with various approaches to keep it fresh. I'm finding in-class writing & group work is great to generate ideas before whole-class discussions of topics, too.

I think I'll work the Wikipedia exercise into my class soon. It seems like a very useful way to get into the materials and how we imagine them.

Also helpful is what you said about "remix culture," which I've been thinking about and discussing with my own students this semester, regarding the Bible & medieval/early modern adaptations. I like the TV Tropes wiki, and will plan to work it into my class. I've shown a few clips from Kirby Ferguson's documentary Everything Is a Remix, here, which was great right at the start of class to help frame discussion--so we were able to jump back and forth between biblical, medieval, & modern.

medievalkarl said...

Thanks Brandon. Expect it'll go well for you. And I was considering using that same video! Might as well -- in a 3-hour class, I have time.

I'm really aiming for no more than 20 minutes going any one thing, and ideally never talking for more than 10 minutes at a time. And the larger goal is, as much as possible, to get them to figure things out themselves. The way we do this is just by reading and chatting, but we forget, or at least I do, how important writing is to thinking. And since writing is always the place where they're the weakest, the trick is just to get them to do MORE, without increasing my grading load. So! This is the trick.

Alex Mueller said...

In the spirit of St. Valentine's, I "heart" the whole sequence of activities you spell out here. Directed writing, or what I call "quickwrites," are my bread and butter pedagogical technique. And like Brandon, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Wikipedia activity, which I think I will steal and "remix" into my own teaching.

I'm also compelled to comment because I'm working on a project that is examining the affinities between premodern (often pre-printed, but not always) and digital reading/writing practices that I'm tentatively calling "Veni, Vidi, Wiki: A Prehistory of Digital Textuality." In particular, your connection between the incomplete/reworked translations of the Voyage of Brendan (a text I will be looking closely at soon!) and Wikipedia entries suggests that the read/write sensibility of the wiki reflects much of what we might witness in many medieval compilations, which are crafted for particular audiences or what we might call networks of readers. It might also be interesting to have your students add some edits to the Wikipedia page, but then again that might ruin this activity for future students. I'd like to believe that such a reading of these entries could be never-ending, but that's probably not the case . . .

And if you haven't seen this classic episode of Colbert (http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word---wikiality), then you must. The response was so overwhelming that the Wikipedia admins had to shut the "Elephants" page down until the editing fervor subsided.

medievalkarl said...

Alex -- I do know the Colbert, and I love this project you're proposing. Do keep me posted on how it develops.

Now that you've proposed it, I think we'll do some in-class wiki editing either in one of the next classes. Hoping to be able to report back here how it turns out.

Alex Mueller said...

I will keep you posted on my project, Karl. Thanks for your interest. And I'm glad to hear you might try the wiki-editing with your students. If they're worried about putting their edits "out there" you can tell them that Isidore justified his unique encyclopedic interventions in the face of previous authorities with this maxim: "Magnarum esse virium clavam Herculi extorquere de manu" ['to wrench the club from the hand of Hercules is to be of greater power"].

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm late to this, Karl, but wanted to say how cheering I found your post. I am used to teaching the long stretch graduate seminar, but this semester I have been experimenting with its cadence and kinetics. We move a lot more than I am used to and engage in some creative activities that are energizing.

I was also thinking of an 8 credit, 6 hour (2 3 hour classes per week!) seminar I took on chivalry co-taught by Tom Hahn and Richard Kaeuper when I was an undergrad at U of Rochester. It was incredibly intense, dominated my life ... and was truly amazing in its depth.

medievalkarl said...

wow! sounds amazing. now I'm immediately seeing that from a faculty perspective and thinking through the possibilities (a classicist and I have talked about doing a team-taught 'otherworlds' course for example) -- Hahn did one class, and Kaeuper the other I presume? Did they both attend the whole time though?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It was a truly co-taught course. On each day the lead belonged to one or the other in theory I think but it was always a conversation between the two of them and among us. The "Chevalerie" chapter from Medieval Identity Machines" derives, I'm sure, from that seminar.

i've never co-taught a course but am itching to do so some day.

kjarchow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kjarchow said...

Late to the party, Karl, but your detailed process of classroom flipping is awesome! Though I have never had to 'do', per se, a three-hour course in one neat block, I will certainly keep your structure in mind.

Anonymous said...

This is a set of really interesting possibilities, and the in-class writing thing does sound as if it might unstick some stuck discussions, or start new ones where silence loomed. Wikpiedia is also tempting as a pedagogical resource, but exercises involving lots of access from a single IP or lots of edits to a single page tend to attract robotic redaction pretty quickly. Some experience and suggestions from people who've tried this linked from here, which I humbly recommend to all thinking about such approaches in class.

medievalkarl said...

Thanks JJ. Very useful, and looking forward to trying something like that this Fall.