Friday, February 09, 2018

On The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales

by Leila K. Norako

As I’m sure a lot of you have already heard, the wonderful OpenAccess Companion to the Canterbury Tales (OACCT) is now live, and provides a rich array of entry-level essays focused both on the tales themselves and the cultural contexts in which Chaucer wrote them. I have been looking forward to its release for some time now: I had the pleasure of incorporating many of the articles (when they were undergoing their open access review phase) last year in my first-ever Chaucer course, and found myself profoundly grateful throughout the term for the OACCT’s existence.

I was determined, for instance, to provide my students (the vast majority of which had never encountered Chaucer before) with a robust sampling of secondary readings, but I was also eager to seek out texts that would be immediately accessible to a group of students who were new to Middle English, late medieval English literature and culture, and Chaucer himself. The essays offered in this open-access volume filled exactly that need. They challenged the students in productive ways, but also enabled them to dive into the tales and make meaning out of them with greater confidence than they otherwise might have had.

In addition to being beautifully pitched for an entry-level audience, the OACCT is also conscientiously inclusive in its range of scholarly contributors: over half of the contributors are women, several medievalists of color contributed essays, and several early career and contingent scholars are included alongside more established scholars in the field. As a result, students have access through the OACCT to a wide range of perspectives on Chaucer and his writings, and this range also makes the task of making a Chaucer course an inclusive one even easier.

For instance, given that Chaucer classes, by their very nature, are focused on a “single dead white guy,” I was determined to make sure that at least 75% of the scholarship I included on the syllabus was written by women, and that I included as many scholars of color as possible. The OACCT’s offerings were instrumental in this regard given the number of women who contributed, and this resource, in tandem with the Global Chaucers project (which steered me to other wonderful creative works and articles penned by scholars of color), allowed me to come close to meeting those goals. 

Granted, in a 10-week course on Chaucer, there was simply no way to require that students read a Canterbury Tale plus 2-3 secondary readings for each class, especially since I asked students to read each of the selected tales in the original Middle English. My solution was to require that each student commit to reading and leading a discussion on two of the required secondary readings. While students appreciated the challenge of reading articles by Carolyn Dinshaw, Glen Burger, and others, they regularly praised the OACCT articles for their combination of rich information and accessibility. Several students retroactively consulted OACCT articles that they hadn’t been required to read for their research and creative projects, and many sought them out for support as they prepared for class. I was consistently amazed by the way my students deepened their abilities to discuss the tales we read (especially since none of them had studied Chaucer or Middle English literature prior to this class), and the OACCT played a tremendous part in the development of that confidence and enthusiasm.

In short, I cannot recommend incorporating the OACCT articles into your Chaucer and Medieval Literature syllabi enough. They worked beautifully for my group of mostly non-majors, and I found myself tremendously grateful to the authors (and to the creators and editors of the project) for the way in which these essays made the tales and topics less daunting to my students than they otherwise would have been (especially in a compressed 10-week seminar).

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