Wanted: Help Slaying Two-Headed Middle Ages Course

As it happens, I am teaching ENGL 3030: The Middle Ages course again in the Fall. My first reaction? A metaphoric fist pump. Upper-level course in my field of study? Yes, please, as always.

Unfortunately, I have some problems that temper my natural and initial enthusiasm. I taught this course first last spring (in 2012) and a previous incarnation of it during my graduate work at the University of Connecticut. The issues I will outline did not arise in that first round, more than likely because of the differences in curriculum. However, here at Fitchburg I face a conundrum.

Some context. We have a series of 2000-level surveys broken up chronologically, both in British Literature (a three-course series) and American Literature (a two-course series). For those in the English Studies major, students are required to take one of the former and one of the latter, plus an additional course from a list of approved surveys, which includes the previously-mentioned ones. The Middle Ages is a part of that list as well as an option for the “literary movement” requirement. For those outside the major, both the British and American Literature surveys as well as The Middle Ages can serve to fulfill the literature requirement for our Liberal Arts and Sciences (general education) curriculum. It is worth noting there are no prerequisites for The Middle Ages beyond freshman writing.

What is the problem? In any given section of The Middle Ages, the students range from upper-level English Studies majors taking the course for their literary movement requirement to those taking it for their survey to non-majors fulfilling their LA&S. More to the point, however, some of the students may have been exposed to the background provided by the 2000-level British Literature I while, it is likely, an equal number will not have taken this previous course, nor have any exposure to the medieval contexts – culture, history, or literature – necessary to read the assigned texts. My students here, until they get into my courses, have little opportunity, beyond the obligatory Beowulf in high school, to pick up any information about the Middle Ages. I have strategies for a class without the background, and a class with the background is already a step ahead – it is the mixed bag that has caused me to pause. Indeed, if I could split the class into two sections, the problem would be solved! One head per body! 

A further issue – for me, at least – is that, at this stage, given how long I have been at the university now, the students who have taken the British Literature I survey are likely to have taken it with me. On one hand, I know exactly what background they have, which is a positive. On the other, the basic contexts I must present to the class, which a percentage of the students won’t have, will be repetition for those who have taken the survey.

Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing, you might say. And I agree. A certain amount, especially when it is reinforcement rather than repetition. However, given that a significant percentage of the students are likely not to have ANY context for the literature versus the other half who have quite a bit – and from the same instructor – proves to be a serious concern in my mind. I feel that the last time I taught the course, while effective, thanks in great part to an enthusiastic and engaged group of students, was much less successful than I would like due to these very reasons. I tried to compromise and landed somewhere a bit flat.

So what is to be done?

I am contemplating that very question, and I am thankful that I have the semester and summer with which to devise solutions. Let me offer, first, a few of my current thoughts.

  • In the last section, I departed from a chronology-driven syllabus to a thematic-driven one. I prefer this method as it encourages students to think in different ways rather than simply being concerned with when something was written. And it disabuses them of the notion that culture changes instantaneously, rather than evolves over time. Having said this, given the problem I have outlined, the thematic units became complicated, and I found myself feeling as if students were being short-changed on content. I am likely to remain with the thematic units, but I will have to revisit the themes.
  • One way to compromise is, of course, as is the goal of an upper-level course, to spend more time with the texts that overlap in both courses – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example. Emphasize the importance of closer reading versus that we necessarily engage in within the surveys, given time constraints. Still, this idea does not directly address the primary question.
  • I have also considered a type of flipped classroom, in which the context material will all be outside-of-the-classroom required viewing (Camtasia is a wonderful thing). I am still on the fence for this sort of instruction, given it eliminates discussion of that material – at least at the time it is being experienced. In this situation, however, I see the value, and I feel that the students who would likely take this course would be responsible enough to handle those sorts of assignments.

Have any others experienced this particular situation? How have you handled it? And, even if you haven’t, do you have any suggestions? I am looking for some brainstorming here, even if it is simply approaching the course with a different mindset.  Your thoughts would be welcome!

–Kisha

PS On a completely unrelated note, I will have them perform a play again. Their production of Everyman went extremely well – just needs a bit of tweaking.

P1013371
Fitchburg State University: Everyman (Spring 2012)

3 Comments

Filed under Teaching

3 responses to “Wanted: Help Slaying Two-Headed Middle Ages Course

  1. Hi Kisha,

    Really complex and important question, and one relevant to all of our 3000-level courses (at least, and maybe lots of others too).

    One thing I would suggest is making the students the experts but in a way that’s halfway between lectures and the full flipped classroom: by having each day include at least one student presentation on some bit of context. They sign up at the start of the semester, it’s (at least as I do it) ungraded (or rather, if they do the few things I ask of them they get full credit), it gets everybody’s voice into the mix at some point, and it can help get the context in without it feeling like it’s all coming from on high.

    That’s a way I try to go about it, anyway. I look forward to hearing more of your takes!

    Ben

    • Thanks, Ben! This is definitely something I’ll consider – it allows the students who have taken the survey to “use” what they know and those who haven’t to gain the knowledge. Possibilities.

      As for the 3000’s, I would recommend that there be survey prereq’s, but, with the LAS designations, that doesn’t seem like a viable solution. It’s a perplexing issue.

    • jpsexton

      I also endorse the student-driven context presentations, and have been able to use them with (mixed) success at Bridgewater, including in our equivalent of your 3030 course. I find that certain mini-projects (trial by combat, medieval English bow technology, manuscript history for certain texts, etc.) lend themselves very well to this sort of thing. If I want the class to have a working knowledge of a more complex or obscure subject, however (say, the socioeconomic aftermath of the 14th-century plague as preparation for reading Piers Plowman), I still find it easier and more effective to provide a mini-lecture of my own.

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