Every fall, I have 70 students in Chaucer, and no help with grading. Teaching Chaucer, for me, is not an occasional treat with a small group of enthusiasts, but a constant hard slog of Middle English boot camp with a bunch of draftees, who every year appear to be in worse shape when they start out than the last batch of maggots.

So tonight I have about a dozen web pages and three more PDFs open to different undergraduate Chaucer syllabuses. It’s interesting to see the range of requirements. At Harvard, for example, no papers are required. The grads are supposed to write a paper, and the undergrads may do so, if they want to make up for a skipped exam. But the planned undergrad assessments are exams.

I suppose at Harvard, you can assume that your students already know how to write papers.

There’s a whole group of courses structured around a term paper. For some, it’s really the only significant assessment, though there may be some quizzes along the way, an annotated bibliography here, a rough draft there. Some make a concerted effort to break down the parts of the research paper and teach students how to do it. Others may do this in class, but it doesn’t show up on the syllabus.

A significant minority seem to rely heavily on team/group work, often involving creating webpages or some other sort of visual presentation, alongside more traditional papers and exams.

Another chunk of courses do the little-bit-of-everything approach: some translations, some quizzes, one or two or three shortish papers, or maybe collections of discussion questions, a short annotated bibliography, a longer paper, maybe a final exam. This is what my syllabus used to look like, but it’s a model I want to move away from. It’s confusing. My aim is to simplify.

I’m never really happy with my Chaucer course. There are too many things I want to do, or feel I must do, and it’s hard to set priorities and work out how to teach all the necessary skills alongside teaching the real essential skill, how to read Middle English. Unlike Harvard students, many of mine still have to be taught how to write essays for literature classes. Possibly they knew before they were confronted with Middle English, and what I’m seeing is a reversion of one skillset while they’re in the process of acquiring a new one. But whatever: I’m not so much interested in why I have to be very clear about instructions, model processes in class, give sample papers, and so on, as I am in the fact of having to do it, and how that changes what I can do in class.

A lot of my students also face significant time pressures, because they work (often full-time), have children, or both. I know I’m looking at a school very different from mine when a syllabus says that if a class is cancelled due to weather, they’ll find a time to make it up. That, to me, says “traditional-age undergraduates living on-campus in residence halls.” Chez moi, if we lose a day, it stays lost. Similarly, trying to get people to work in groups outside of class is much, much worse than herding cats. I could herd a troupe of Basement Cat’s demonic little friends more easily than get my students together outside of regularly scheduled class time. Anyway, that’s another thing to take into account when I’m thinking about what I’m going to require, and how much scaffolding it will take.

My students really seem to want, and do better at, lots of short, low-stakes assignments: translations, worksheets, short papers. I’ve seen this in the past (right after sabbatical, when I was feeling fired with idealism, I had my classes do some sort of short paper every week: it was great for them, but nearly killed me), and I’m seeing it now, when I’ve made some mid-course alterations to grant student desires for this sort of thing. After two weeks of students handing in a translation at every course meeting (we go over them in class; I just check them off later), I’m seeing significant improvement in reading comprehension.

Maybe it’s a matter of my own bottom-up way of building research topics, but I don’t think I can teach how to do the research paper on Chaucer. I’d have to break the process down into teensy steps and collect work every week or two, grade it, and then re-grade the whole thing when it came back as a paper at the end of the course. And I believe in “reading around” for awhile before coming up with a topic; I don’t want to assign topics at the beginning of the semester (“bird imagery in tales told by women” or whatever). So I’m not going the research paper route, though I worry a bit about that art dying out: I now have to teach the grad students how to write a term paper, so clearly not everyone is learning that in undergrad any longer.

My primary goal is to get students reading Middle English comfortably. I’d be thrilled if they get through this class and then go read some Chaucer on their own. Not necessarily for fun, but say they take Shakespeare and want to look into Troilus and Criseyde as a source for Troilus and Cressida, and feel okay about reading TC on their own: that would be grand. On top of that, if I can teach (or reinforce) some basic literary analysis skills, that’s good, too.

Thus I’m thinking, in future, lots of translation, some worksheets, and some short papers that focus on the skill of close reading. Oh, and I think I want to go back to memorizing some lines, which I let drop awhile back due to popular demand. But I think it’s important and should come back. Part of my justification for the type of written work is that learning Middle English now seems to be much harder than it was 15 years ago (I blame poor vocabulary, whatever is causing that); part is that close (nay, myopic, the way I work) reading is a useful skill not only for literary scholars but for readers in general, and yet students rarely seem to get much of this in their other classes. There are other things I consider desirable, and I’d like to work out a way to let my top students stretch more than this model would allow, without killing myself grading. But these are the essentials.


9 thoughts on “Chaucer syllabus review

  1. Thank you. My workload does not compare to yours, but I think we share some of the problems of how to pitch our classes, and how these classes differ from what we were trained to do.

  2. We do have the same problems of how to pitch classes. Check out the teaching load I negotiated for next semester after throwing fit at chair.Intro to literary genresModern survey+ random grads / senior projectsThat's it!!!!

  3. It sounds like the heart of the problem is that you have to do this with 70 students. I have classes that large and the saving grace is that we're dealing with early modern English for their readings. That's challenge enough some days.

  4. Janice, it's two sections, not a single big class, but aside from that, the net result is much the same. I've tried staggering the assignments but it just gets me confused, which is then confusing for the students. Better just to have the same stuff due at the same time and cope.

  5. Why not use tapestries. One of the courses had us examining tapestries and making cultural assessments based on what we could SEE. The Bayeux Tapestry was a good way to introduce a lot of ideas (along with 'winners get to not only write but show history how they like it, not unlike Hollywood'). Because we had already engaged with the text before class, and then, we had something to add (our observations, as detailed in assignment), and then listened to the lecture with more interest.I would personally rather the students learn the symbology and mythology that shows up in every aspect of literature until about 20 years ago than worry too much about the reading of Middle English. Or to give you a real example, would you like them to be able to read middle english perfectly, but ask, as I had a majority of 18-20 year old students ask, "What is Sin?", "What is Hell?", "Why is Hell considered bad?", "Why would a woman choose to be a nun?"The role of the nunnery in the life of the lower nobility is a lecture itself. Also, what about some critique on Queenie and her husband who set up this list in 1930 that you are teaching today? Are you happy about that? Are the students happy that a married couple, at Oxford decided that there should be a list, and somehow, every university teaches that same list? And are these really the most important books in the lives of people 100 years ago? Or for the people in those periods?Or, should they follow the advise of Quiller-couch in 'The Art of Reading' and 'The Art of Writing'? Is the ability to be the self reflective reader the only thing of import? And do the easy answers which 'testing' comprises takes us away from the challenging questions, which often have no simple answer, not at that point in the life of a young person?Good luck on the plan.

  6. Elizabeth, this is an upper-division, majors-only, required course. The Bayeux Tapestry has little to do with Chaucer, as does the topic of nunneries in the life of the lower nobility. I think if you pay attention to my posts on teaching, it's clear that I'm fine with the structure of the English major at LRU, and actually, as unfashionable a position as this is, I'm on board with the traditional canon. What I mind is having students with tiny vocabularies and the constraints that this imposes on my teaching.

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