Why I teach

I offer my condolences to students and their families, faculty, staff, and the community of Northern Illinois University.

And finally, in the light of tragic events there, I think I know why I teach.

It means a lot to me to be part of an institution with a long history and a continuous commitment to its mission: pursuing knowledge, in the hope of gaining understanding and wisdom: the central goal of a university.

I don’t mean my home institution, which is not that old; I mean the idea of the university. The university is a medieval institution, founded in the centuries I have spent my adult life studying. As a professor, I take my place in a tradition that has lasted a millenium.

Of course, medieval masters would be shocked by my classroom: taught by a secular, a woman? With women in the classroom! And why are you reading that secular vernacular trash? Look at all the books—every page alike! So bright in here, so warm! What are these people wearing? Does no one know Latin any more? What do all these neologisms mean? And that’s just my classroom, before getting to the rest of the university and its organization.

Nonetheless, I feel the continuity between myself and the medieval masters. It is their commitment to learning, their arguments about the nature of God, their practice of dialectic, their reading to students from precious books, their public disputations, that make possible my work and the work of my colleagues in other departments. We all pursue knowledge; we all hope to understand better our world, our history, ourselves and each other because of this work; most of us hope such understanding can lead to wisdom. Even if our findings are fit only for the Journal of Negative Results, we’re engaged in a process that is in itself meaningful.

I find new knowledge in the library, or at my desk. But the classroom is where I stand up and get counted as a believer in the university’s work. In the classroom, I speak for the importance of asking questions, studying arcane subjects, putting together the puzzle pieces of intellectual inquiry. In teaching, I assert, implicitly or explicitly, that the life of the mind is important, that you should learn more than just what is required to manage day to day life, that preserving and extending knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor.

Both my research and my teaching can, and eventually will, be continued by others. Far from indispensable, I am an academic cog. But I am not alienated from my labors. I have my place in the Great Chain of University Beings, furthering the pursuit of knowledge as best I can.

This is a far more abstract answer than most bloggers have given to this meme, which surprises me, because usually I favor concrete thought. But underneath pleasure in the classroom, or the need to support a research habit, or any of the other good reasons to teach, I find that teaching, for me, is a matter of principle. Every day that I teach, I am standing up for something I believe in: that there is value in pursuing knowledge for its own sake; and that that pursuit may lead to wisdom.

I am a little surprised to find that I am leading such a principled life.

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Teaching and translations

I once had a student who translated Chaucer’s famous line (thanks to Dr. Virago, we all know it), “”Te-he,’ she seyde, and clapte the wyndow to,” as,

“‘Teach,’ she said, ‘and close the window, too.'”

Insert joke here about closing the barn window after the horse is stolen.

I expect upper-division English majors to read Chaucer (and many other Middle English texts) in Middle English. I would not expect this of lower-division students in a gen ed course, but it seems to me that if you’re a major, you should read Chaucer, not someone else’s version of Chaucer. A few years ago, the Chaucer Review published an essay analyzing summaries of the Wife of Bath’s prologue (Crags’ Notes, Regal Notes, FireStarter notes), and the ways minor misstatements added up to serious distortion; I think the same thing goes for translation. Most of Chaucer’s writings are poetry, so the words matter even more than in prose, and you should read for more than just plot. Told by someone else, the Miller’s Tale would be just a fart joke.

Some students take to ME quite easily; others take awhile; some never really catch on. My experience suggests that it helps a lot to have (a) a large vocabulary in Present-Day English, so that you recognize archaic and dialect words more easily, and (b) a flexible approach to spelling. Further, being able/willing to sound words out helps; I suspect the student who gave the translation cited above had learned to read by recognizing the shapes of words (“whilom” came out as “William,” and a host of similar errors).

I encourage students to use a translation, preferably the Harvard Chaucer Page’s interlinear translation, for the General Prologue, and start weaning themselves off translations while reading the Knight’s Tale. This used to be self-enforcing, when the HCP gave only the GP . . . the GP and a little more . . . but now the HCP has the whole CT, and various other reputable online sites have most of the Chaucer corpus available in translation.

So, are we to give up and assume that Chaucer, like Beowulf, will now be read only in translation at the undergraduate level? Last time I taught Chaucer, I kept to what has become my usual sequence of texts, and continued to encourage students to do their own translations and check them against the HCP, to wean themselves from the interlinear translation, to bring their assigned books to class and quote and discuss ME in their papers. But I noticed a lot of printouts being used, and there was a notable drop in participation the first day (mid-semester) we discussed Sir Orfeo, which I assigned from the TEAMS site. (Students didn’t seem to get as far as acquiring the Tolkien translation, so maybe if I didn’t mention the online translations of Chaucer, they wouldn’t find them? I doubt it, though.) I think that when faced with ME sans interlinear translation, a lot of them boggled.

Two solutions immediately spring to mind. One, give in to the use of translations and cover a lot more ground than I currently do. (I used to cover more, but back in the day, students seemed to read better . . . please join me in a chorus of my-how-the-world-has-changed-for-the-worse-since-I-was-young.) Two, go the other direction entirely, and do fewer texts but in much more depth, so that students will become intimately familiar with the ME, and thus, I hope, will stop feeling intimidated by it and develop a real appreciation for the language and its strange shades of meaning that no longer exist.

My preference is for the second; and that leads to the problem of which texts to choose. If you were going to spend a whole semester on 2-3 Chaucerian texts (with some supporting critical and source material), which would you choose, and why?

On reading and romance

I work on, and enjoy, medieval romance. I have to admit, however, that I find it difficult to distinguish some of the more episodic romances from one another (or from Harry Potter 7, for that matter), or to remember the sequence of plot events.

So when I read a romance I intend to write about, I take detailed notes, with line numbers, plot summary, reaction, and sometimes interwoven commentary from critics. It might read like this: “2001. Wyrm appears in heavens, hero prays before attacking. Wouldn’t that risk getting cooked in own armor? Dude, attack first and pray afterwards. Critic Z says this indicates change in attitude, learning to appreciate piety, but really, there are better places to learn piety, like episodes at 1700 or 2350.”

Sometimes, especially when talking with certain colleagues, I feel that this is a total waste of time. I should just write an actual article or at least conference paper, looking things up as necessary, rather than spending weeks noting a single romance. Product! Excelsior!

HOWEVER. I am now engaged in writing a conference paper on one of these obsessively noted romances, and it is SO EASY because I have 30 pages of word-processed notes. I don’t have to spend ages trying to figure out whether I mean the first or second wyrm attack; I just hit control-F and sort it out quickly.

Note to self: taking notes is not a waste of time. I should do more of it in general. But most especially in desperately busy semesters when I can’t get my mind around a sustained piece of work, it is perfectly, totally, completely fine, nay, praise-worthy, to set aside a couple of hours a week to read another medieval text and take notes on it. It will pay off down the road.

So am I the only one who thinks HP7 is like Guy of Warwick, only more predictable?