There are certain things I expect graduate students to know, and abilities I expect them to have, before they take a course on a medieval topic. Often I identify these expectations by my shock at the absence of this knowledge in some students.
Basic historical knowledge: that the Middle Ages are “middle” because they come after the Classical period and before the Renaissance. That the Renaissance refers to more than a change in artistic styles (and that it encompasses that artistic change, as well). That the Protestant Reformation occurred in the sixteenth century, so Chaucer and his friends wrote well before it. That the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, so, as above. That England was (and remains) a monarchy, but not an absolute one: see Magna Carta. That there was a Norman Invasion, and that Chaucer (and Shakespeare) did not write in Old English. (I’m willing to explain that, at length, to undergraduates; but in grad school, you should know better.)
Basic ability to read and discuss poetry: the vocabulary of meter, stress, rhyme, enjambment, metaphor, metonymy, simile, imagery, and so on; the ability to follow complex syntax.
Bibliography and research: it really would be best to take our intro course on these topics before you get to my class. You should not rely solely on either on-line or hard copy sources. You should realize that there’s something wrong with a bibliography all of whose items pre-date 1980 or post-date 1998 (unless of course your project is something like “The Manciple’s Tale in criticism from 1920-1965″—and even then, you had better be prepared to explain your date limitations with reference to what happened before and after that period). Figure out how to order material from inter-library loan; don’t ignore good sources just because they’re not in LRU’s library. Bibliographies should be complete: not just everything on very narrow topic, but read around that topic as well (i.e., if you’re looking at nightingales in Chaucer, you should consider also birds or even animals in Chaucer, and nightingales in other medieval literature).
Writing ability: You should be able to write coherent, grammatical English. You should know the difference between “lay” and “lie.” (I have given up on this in conversational contexts, but at least in writing I want the distinction upheld.) Proofread, proofread, proofread. Turn off that damned auto-correct feature and actually pay attention to what you are writing. When you’re done, read what you have written. Aloud, if necessary. Does it make sense? Is it tolerably concise and free of repetition?
Intellectual curiosity: if you’re even considering going to graduate school in the humanities, you should like to learn for the sake of learning. It’s not as if a degree in English is a path to riches. I expect a certain joy in getting things right, in pursuing truth, in tracking down references, in being thorough. I have little patience with the slapdash, lick-and-a-promise approach. (See above about bibliography.)
I’m sure there are other expectations lurking in my mind. I may not be aware of them until the next time they’re violated. So in an effort to ferret out some more of them, I ask you, gentle readers: what do you / would you expect of graduate students?
To be continued.