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.

4 thoughts on “Teaching grads, 2: for students, before you start

  1. A powerful work ethic. Some understanding of the Big Picture of literary periods and how they fit together. Appreciation and enthusiasm for even the kind of literature they don't want to specialize in.

  2. "Appreciation and enthusiasm for even the kind of literature they don't want to specialize in."OMG, *YES*. *Please*!That goes along with DEH's "intellectual curiosity" paragraph.As for the rest, I *wish* for it all, but don't *expect* any of it (except maybe the paragraph on writing and the one on doing research, because we, too, have a research methods class and I usually teach it so I *know* what they were taught in it).I know it seems a little sad, but ours is a terminal MA program, and many students come from undergrad programs, like our own, where they can get away with taking a single course on pre-1800 literature, and many have avoided courses that expect them to discuss poetry (i.e., its prosody rather than its content) in any rigorous way, so I'd be expecting too much to expect all of this of them. But some it can be taught quickly. In fact, DEH, I bet you could give them your second paragraph at the beginning of the semester – and voila!And the thing is, I think I'd rather have the skills in paragraphs 3-6 and the attitude in paragraph 7 over the basic knowledge in paragraph 2. But the sad truth, is that I've got to teach it all to some extent to most of the students.

  3. These are good qualifications. I wonder if the part about knowing chronology and basic ideas is going to get harder and harder to expect, however, since we are now supposed to jump away from "coverage" as a model as though it were a nest of snakes.

  4. You could send your students to my English history classes. Then we'd have the enrollments to justify English history classes :)As an early modernist, I've given up expecting students (except those who want to work on my field) know anything about the period before they walk in the door. But I do want curiosity and a work ethic.

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