(I have a terrible time coming up with titles, for blog posts or anything else. At least, with this one, I now have The Moody Blues’ “The Other Side of Life” in my head. I can live with that.)
Next week I begin teaching my first graduate course. And speaking of titles: “Divine Power in Medieval Literature” (this evolved from “Writing the Divine: Religion in Medieval Literature,” which had the advantage of containing the obligatory colon, but, alas, the colon fell to the superior firepower of the online registration system’s preference for short titles). It’s a 5-week intensive summer class with, at the moment, six Masters students.
Mostly I’m excited for this opportunity – although a bit daunted by the four-hour class periods I’m going to have to fill. I predict I’ll hit the wall around the three-hour mark most evenings (more on that later). This is kind of what we live for, the chance to delve into texts with graduate students, to teach a class without having to combat undergraduate apathy. I am giddy with anticipation. The two students I have already corresponded with seem personable – a plus – and eager – even more of a plus.
As a novice at this, I do, however, have some questions to ask and hopefully answer, either before or after the course runs. First, how much do I need to cover? These particular students, while not at the beginning level of undergraduates, do not have a background in medieval literature. This probably means I’m going to spend a lot of time getting them up to speed, filling them in on the background of the period and how to read this kind of literature. Not a problem, except I know me – I get antsy when I have a theme or agenda and, while I don’t mind digressing when necessary (in fact, I encourage it), I like to get to the point eventually. Note to self: if they are learning, who cares about the syllabus?
What is the point? Even with the title change, the original purpose of the course is the same. In medieval literature, we frequently are confronted with the relationship between the secular and sacred aspects of culture. This relationship is often extremely intricate, both because the related concepts are, at times, difficult and because authors cleverly imbed it within the construction of their narratives. My syllabus calls for texts from the Anglo-Saxon period to the fifteenth century in addition to earlier influential theological tracts, such as Augustine and Boethius. Ambitious, yes? I’ve never been accused of being sane.
The impetus for this course idea came from the introduction to a book I reviewed a few years ago entitled Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early Modern Cultures: New Essays, edited by Lawrence Besserman. The introduction weaves together different disciplines and also discusses, in particular, D.W. Robertson’s brand of scholarship (Lynn Staley’s “Remembering Robbie: No one who heard D.W. Robertson read Chaucer can ever forget it” in Princeton Alumni Weekly), in which there is always a religious reading lurking about waiting to be found in secular medieval texts. While Robertson was a brilliant scholar, there is, of course, a danger in this reading in that it fixates on an agenda – the age-old problem of “finding that for which you are looking.” The rest of Besserman’s volume of essays is hit and miss – some excellent, others forgettable – but it does raise a question: how do sacred and secular elements interact? It’s a question that I feel makes a useful, or at least an entertaining, frame for studying texts. The confessions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Christian elements of Beowulf, the enigma of the penitential romances, the mercantile world of Margery Kempe. It is a rich topic. I get chills, proving once again just how much of a nerd I am.
Back to my conundrum – how to talk about what I want to talk about and not throw my students into utter confusion. I have considered several possibilities. I could devote the first part of class to a general discussion of the texts of the day, then perhaps divide the remaining time between secondary criticism and a more specific look at the works to search for secular/divine intersections. It might also be possible to assign the students the task of teaching each other about (some of) the background to the texts. Or maybe I will end up by simply jettisoning the title and teaching a graduate-level medieval literature course.
In the end, I have to accept this is my guinea pig class, a test case for teaching future graduate courses, a fact I plan on announcing the first evening. Note to self: let the students help.
As for how to fill four hours at a pop, I would be interested in suggestions. I personally have never taken a class with such long periods. I feel that it is going to require a delicate balance of lecture, discussion, and perhaps some primal screaming (stolen from my graduate advisor – I still don’t know how the whole building didn’t fly to our rescue after that experiment). Thoughts?
Wish me luck.