Category Archives: Teaching

Medieval or Modern – Can You Tell?

“As for the old reputation of medieval times as a dark time of parochialism, religious prejudice and mass slaughter, the record of the twentieth century must lead any thoughtful observer to conclude that we are in no way superior.” – Michael Crichton, Timeline
One of the issues I often see in my courses with medieval content is students falling back on thinking that the medieval era was “primitive” or “backward,” believing that the modern era has progressed far beyond what they see in the older texts. It is indeed part of a tendency – not just for students, for all of us in general – to see time periods and people in those time periods as “all” one way or another.
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In order to open up conversations about this topic, I recently developed an activity to try with my students that I call “Medieval or Modern.” I collected – with the help of the Facebook and Twitter ‘Verses – thirty-two quotations, some from modern sources and others from medieval sources.

The goal was to find modern quotations, particularly related to gender and ethnicity, that could sound “medieval” and medieval quotations that could sound “modern.” In addition, I included more “traditional” sounding quotations from both periods as well. I did heavily edit the quotations to disguise any obvious clues, but the meanings were all retained. Then I mixed them all up and took the citations off of them.
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Here is the activity. Test yourself on the quotations! The answer key is at the end of the post.
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Activity: During this activity, the group will consider the time period of a variety of anonymous quotations.

Purpose: This activity will provide the opportunity for us to 1) consider attitudes towards gender, ethnicity, science, religion, etc., during the Middle Ages and on the modern era; 2) reconsider whether our own approaches to the Middle Ages are accurate; and 3) think about the meanings of the words “primitive” and “progress.”

Assignment (10 points):

  • Read each quotation and discuss it briefly as a group.
  • Decide (for yourself) whether you think it is a medieval quotation or a modern quotation (i.e. whether it was said/written by a medieval writer/person or a modern one).
  • Record your decisions on your own Endeavors assignment sheet. (not part of grade)
  • Afterward completing all 32 quotations, consult the answer key. Were you correct? Were you incorrect? If incorrect, does the answer surprise you?
  • For at least two (2) of the quotations, provide a comment on your Endeavors assignment sheet discussing your surprise at whether the quotation is medieval or modern and/or your response to the content of the quotations. (part of grade)
  • Finally, respond to the final questions. (part of grade)

Quotations:

  1. So a woman who is free of wedlock, or a virgin, is concerned with the Lord’s claim, intent on holiness, bodily and spiritual; whereas the married woman is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how she is to please her husband.
  2. God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge.
  3. I have the power during my life over his body, and not he. The Apostle said this, and told our husbands to love us well. I like this a lot.
  4. Women are much happier at home with a husband and children.
  5. We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising.
  6. The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.
  7. We, the Jews, collectively rejected God and hung Him up on a cross to die, and thus we deserved the punishments that were heaped on our heads.
  8. But that miserable and afflicted wife endures far greater oppression than her husband. For when she sees the one who should be her comfort in every distress, and from whom she should expect advocacy, being savage and more hostile to her than all others, where can she turn?
  9. A woman’s behavior must be monitored and her decisions subject to approval of a male relative who understands what’s in her best interests better than she does herself.
  10. Marry for love.
  11. If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the rape down.
  12. Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love.
  13. It angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though she says no to a man, she won’t in fact mind if he does force himself on her. You can be sure that women would find no pleasure in being raped.
  14. The right approach is to accept rape — a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you.
  15. “If there came a man to kill me unless I have sex with you as I have done before, would you let him kill me or sleep with me?” “I would rather you be killed than have sex again.”
  16. Let every man give his wife what is her due, and every woman do the same by her husband.
  17. Men expect far greater constancy from women than they themselves can manage.
  18. These ideas are encouraged by Satan.
  19. One and all fell prey to women; if I am led astray, I may be excused.
  20. Islam is a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem in their so-called holiest days.
  21. When life begins in rape, it is something that God intended to happen.
  22. When you see your wife commit an offense, do not rush at her with insults and violence: rather, first correct the wrong lovingly and pleasingly. (Cherubino of Siena, 15th-century Italian friar)
  23. The wall will go up, and our enemy will start behaving.
  24. Knowledge of the sciences should help inform moral values.
  25. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.
  26. Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right.
  27. Women immodestly dressed cause earthquakes.
  28. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
  29. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.
  30. He agreed to give them assurances of safety . . . He made no difficulties, and when he was advised to imprison them, replied that he would not go back on his word.
  31. Most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they said or wrote, you know the religion of the murderers.
  32. Once you give a woman personal freedom, she enslaves herself to one of numerous vices and undertakes a rampage of destruction to her body and those who want to be a meaningful part of her life.
What did you learn from this exercise? Were any of your attitudes concerning the Middle Ages confirmed or changed? Do you believe that the people of the Middle Ages were primitive and that there has indeed been progress in the attitudes discussed?
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I have decided to pronounce this activity a success. Many students were “upset” with themselves that they identified no more than half of the quotations successfully. It emphasized with them that the medieval/modern so-called divide is not as clear-cut as they assumed when they came into the course. With their permission, I present some of their thoughts in their own words:
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“I learned I have no initial idea of how things  were perceived. I was mistaken in over 60% of my guesses. Sometimes, reading these quotes makes the ‘viewpoints’ and ‘misconceptions’ of modern politicians/viewpoints ludicrous. Progressiveness seems to be relative to one’s personal beliefs. I think that in a lot of ways we’ve regressed in basic human compassion.”
“I learned that the modern society we live in shouldn’t be as proud of itself, thinking that we have evolved so much from the Middle Ages. My belief has definitely changed. I don’t view them as primitive, nor do I think that our ‘progress’ is as progressive as we think.”
“I learned that there were some progressive ideas in medieval times and antiquated ideas in today’s society.”
“I learned that you definitely can’t judge something without reading into it/getting more information. It also seems that people haven’t evolved as much as I had thought.”
“I learned that my preconceptions about the people of the Middle Ages can be wrong. A lot of my ideas have been changed, as I did not think the people of the Middle Ages would consider science ideologies and equality between genders. I still believe progress has been made.”
“I am still not 100% convinced on progress because we have progressed in science and technology but not always in ideas and opinions.”
“My ideas on the Middle Ages changed because I expected them to be “women-haters” when they weren’t in most cases. Yes, I believe that the people of the Middle Ages were primitive and that progress had been made regarding women/rape. Found that in some ways, we have progressed and others we have digressed.”
“I learned that some medieval values were more acceptable than some modern values…in modern society progress has been made in technology but not the human mind.”
“I learned more about modern vs. medieval thoughts and although thought processes perceived to be completely different, they’re not. A lot of times current (modern) quotes we thought were from the medieval times were actually modern. Attitudes I had towards the Middle Ages have definitely changed.”
There is much that delights me in these statements. One, they are willing to accept that their preconceptions may be inaccurate, which is the first step in learning. Two, I sense confusion now – this, to me, is good in that it indicates consideration and thought. Three, there is not a willingness to go completely to the opposite and state that modern times have not progressed at all. I appreciate this as it means they are retaining their own thoughts on ideas such as “primitive” and “progress.” Four, several of the responses mention that perhaps we have not changed as human beings as much as we think, which I believe is a healthy attitude in which to approach study of medieval literature.
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All in all, again, I consider this activity useful, and I look forward to seeing if it has echoes in the rest of the semester. How did you do on the quotations? Thoughts for other quotations? Thoughts for similar activities?
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–Kisha

Answer Key:

  1. So a woman who is free of wedlock, or a virgin, is concerned with the Lord’s claim, intent on holiness, bodily and spiritual; whereas the married woman is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how she is to please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:34)
  2. God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  3. I have the power during my life over his body, and not he. The Apostle said this, and told our husbands to love us well. I like this a lot. (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 14th cent.)
  4. Women are much happier at home with a husband and children. (Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media)
  5. We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising. (Pope Francis)
  6. The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love. (Julian of Norwich, late 14th/early 15th cent.)
  7. We, the Jews, collectively rejected God and hung Him up on a cross to die, and thus we deserved the punishments that were heaped on our heads. (anonymous Jewish convert to Christianity in a student journal at Harvard College, 2013)
  8. But that miserable and afflicted wife endures far greater oppression than her husband. For when she sees the one who should be her comfort in every distress, and from whom she should expect advocacy, being savage and more hostile to her than all others, where can she turn? (John of Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, c. 349-407)
  9. A woman’s behavior must be monitored and her decisions subject to approval of a male relative who understands what’s in her best interests better than she does herself. (Roosh V“Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled By Men”)
  10. Marry for love. (Piers Plowman, 14th cent.)
  11. If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the rape down. (Todd Akin, American politician)
  12. Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. (Mr. Rogers)
  13. It angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though she says no to a man, she won’t in fact mind if he does force himself on her. You can be sure that women would find no pleasure in being raped. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  14. The right approach is to accept rape — a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. (Rick Santorum, American politician)
  15. “If there came a man to kill me unless I have sex with you as I have done before, would you let him kill me or sleep with me?” “I would rather you be killed than have sex again.” (Margery Kempe, late 14th/early 15th cent.)
  16. Let every man give his wife what is her due, and every woman do the same by her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:3)
  17. Men expect far greater constancy from women than they themselves can manage. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  18. These ideas are encouraged by Satan. (Ben Carson, American author and politician)
  19. One and all fell prey to women; if I am led astray, I may be excused. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 14th cent.)
  20. Islam is a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem in their so-called holiest days. (Mike Huckabee, American politician)
  21. When life begins in rape, it is something that God intended to happen. (Richard Mourdock, American politician)
  22. When you see your wife commit an offense, do not rush at her with insults and violence: rather, first correct the wrong lovingly and pleasingly. (Cherubino of Siena, 15th-century Italian friar)
  23. The wall will go up, and our enemy will start behaving.  (Donald Trump, American businessman and politician)
  24. Knowledge of the sciences should help inform moral values. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  25. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors. (Qur’an, Sura 2 1065)
  26. Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right. (The Song of Roland, 12th cent.)
  27. Women immodestly dressed cause earthquakes. (Fazlur Rehman, Pakistani politician)
  28. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed. (Mr. Rogers)
  29. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. (Pope John Paul II)
  30. He agreed to give them assurances of safety . . . He made no difficulties, and when he was advised to imprison them, replied that he would not go back on his word. (Ibn al-Athir, The Collection of Histories (Arab perspective on Third Crusade), 12th/13th cent.)
  31. Most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they said or wrote, you know the religion of the murderers. (Richard Dawkins, biologist and New Atheist)
  32. Once you give a woman personal freedom, she enslaves herself to one of numerous vices and undertakes a rampage of destruction to her body and those who want to be a meaningful part of her life.  (Roosh V“Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled By Men”)

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Call for Higher Ed Teaching Experiences

Call for Higher Education Teaching Experiences/Activities/Assignments

Currently, I am writing a book (already under contract) about methods in higher education courses of all disciplines, particularly but not exclusively in general education courses, to encourage student investment in learning. To help with aspects of this work, I am in search of anecdotes, experiences, activities, assignments, etc., that relate to the following:

  • Activities emphasizing why students are taking class
  • Students producing knowledge
  • Game-based pedagogy
  • Skills that transfer
  • Short and long-term group work​
  • Service and experiential learning
  • Learning from teaching others
  • Authentic assignments
  • Reflection (meta-cognition)
If you have any related experiences and would be interested in being included in this work, please email Kisha Tracy at ktracy3@fitchburgstate.edu. A few sentences, a paragraph, or an attachment is all that is necessary. In particular, please address how you think it affects student investment in learning. If it is applicable, then I will contact you for permission to include you and perhaps ask for more details. My sincere appreciation in advance for your help! Please do send this to anyone you feel would be willing to participate.

 

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The Story of the “Chaucer Pilgrimage Site”

It all started with this:
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I and a couple of students were presenting at the New England Association of the Teachers of English Fall 2014 Conference. As I checked in, the woman at the table told me about the mini-grants. Apparently, to apply all you had to do was write out a proposal on the back of the form and turn it in by the end of the conference. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I mulled ideas as I listened to the keynote speaker. As I considered my courses, I naturally focused on my upcoming Chaucer class in Spring 2015. I had not taught a course just on Chaucer yet, and I was still considering ways to make his texts and Middle English accessible to my students.
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My thoughts wandered, considered a variety of options and dismissed them. Then, I came up with the “Pilgrimage Site.” I would create a physical location in our English Studies Department that students would have to visit. Pilgrimage can be complex for students to apply to their modern experiences, especially the difficulty with traveling in the Middle Ages.
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What would they do when they got to the Site? Pilgrimage badges! I decided that I would have students “journey” to the Site, pick up a badge specific to our readings of the week, and then leave their own offerings at the Site to represent their understanding of some aspect of the texts.  Students would take photos, provide analysis of their badges and objects, and discuss other students’ objects in a public Facebook group.
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I wrote it up, turned it in, and received quite a surprise when I got the email that I had been awarded the mini-grant – its first ever university awardee.
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Now came the planning. I have never had more fun planning a course than I did in selecting badges that matched our readings. Students would be visiting the Site every other week, which ended up being seven weeks. I wanted students to have choices, so I provided at least two badges per week.
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Before the semester started, I created our Site with the generous support of the department giving me a corner of one of our study rooms. I also decided that the Site would not be complete without Chaucer himself.
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It soon became the “thing” to do to take a selfie with Chaucer. Several of my colleagues in the department (and around the university) took their photo with our author. I received the generous permission from some to post them on the project’s Facebook page, which generated more interest among my own students who were delighted at this development. And, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity myself.
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Having set up the Facebook page (click here to see!), with the beginning of the semester, we began our pilgrimage project.
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The Badges
Week 1 – The Book of the Duchess – Black Knights and Tiny Books
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Week 2 – Troilus and Criseyde – Wheel of Fortune Magnets and an Arrow
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Week 3 – General Prologue – Pilgrim Pins and Becket Prayer Cards
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Week 4 – The Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales – Bags of Flour and Frying Pans
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Week 5 – The Pardoner’s Tale – Treasure Chests and Bells
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Week 6 – The Clerk’s Tale – Brooms and Wedding Rings
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Week 7 – The Franklin’s Tale – Star Chart

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Student Objects
As the semester progressed, our Site became more and more populated with objects students left to represent their readings.
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So What Did I Learn?
For me, this”Pilgrimage Site” became a deliberate study of pedagogical physical and digital spaces. In thinking about ways to negotiate the technology-filled learning environments, we may already have discovered one method that we are not utilizing to its fullest extent – the concept of hybridity. Integrating both physical and digital spaces in more dynamic ways than simply using face-to-face class time as the “physical” aspect allows each to enhance the other. The “paper” and “digital” worlds and teaching practices do not need to be in conflict with each other or be mutually exclusive; they can work together in highly productive ways. The students participated and were immersed in the cultural practice of medieval pilgrimage as well as had a different, creative, active experience with the works of Chaucer. It encouraged interaction with the texts outside of class through cooperative physical and digital interaction. I highly recommend this type of activity!
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What About You?
  • Do you have a similar idea? Post it in the comments!
  • How would you analyze each of the badges above? What badges would you have chosen? Comment!

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Reposting Guest Blog: iPads in the Higher Education Classroom

Forgive me for a departure from the medieval for this post. My university is doing an iPad pilot to test out the possibility of using them in our classrooms. I am a member of this pilot. I have had several concerns about this initiative, and I was asked to do a few guest posts for a blog that is documenting the project. Below is a copy of the text of my first post, originally published here. I would be interested in hearing thoughts and responses from anyone.

–Kisha


It’s Different.

First, I should define where I stand on the “iPads in the classroom question,” which is a much more difficult task than it seems. To begin, what am I not? I am not a full-fledged “skeptic.” I believe that technology can be incredibly effective in the classroom. Indeed, I have promoted pedagogical technologies for several years, and I am currently working on research heading towards a book about wikis in higher education. I also recognize that students should be aware of and proficient with these tools as they will be a part of their future professional and personal landscapes. This leads to what else I am not. I am not a “technology novice.” While the finer points of software, hardware, and the infamous coding are outside my realms of expertise, I can make my way around devices, applications, programs, and electronic toys relatively easily and confidently. Thus, I fall somewhere between the so-called digital native and digital immigrant (phrases I find to be incredibly inaccurate and deceptive, particularly with respect to my students, who missed the memo that everyone their age should be technologically-proficient).
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So what am I? I suppose the best term for me at the beginning of this pilot is “concerned.” I believe there is a vast amount of considerations that need to be addressed as institutions move forward with iPad (or similar) initiatives. I could make a long list of concerns that I have, but I will categorize them in three areas for now.1) Reading. The move toward e-(text)books appears, at this stage, to be inevitable, and there are several advantages – not the least of which is cost, something I am constantly aware of given the average socioeconomic status of our students. There is, however, a great deal of research concerning how different it is to read digitally than on paper. I am not proposing (unless further studies determine thus) that either digital or paper is the better medium. However, it isdifferent, and this difference needs to be considered in our approaches to teaching. Handing a student a book and linking them to an e-(text)book simply cannot be viewed as requiring the same skills. We attempt to teach our students to read at a college-level, and we will need to teach them to read digitally at a college-level. Leaving aside academic research on the subject, the Scientific American posted a useful article entitled “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age,” which highlights this issue very well:
  • “[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
  • “Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.”

2) Writing. Much the same argument applies to writing (for my purposes as an instructor in higher education, academic/college-level writing) on a mobile device. It is different. And I would argue even more so if e-(text)books are used in conjunction with it. As a literary scholar, I think about how I write – with several books open in front of me, or PDF’s open on parallel screens, with a document/notepad available for notes, and then another document for the actual writing. Such a process necessarily changes on a mobile device. Multiple screens might be possible, but in a much more limited way. I will not pretend that my undergraduates have the same process that I do, although getting closer to something in that ballpark is one of the goals of their education. Still, even having an e-(text)book open as well as the word processor is awkward on that platform. Then, of course, there is the physical act of typing a long paper on a small device – keyboard or not. Put simply, it’s different.

3) Research and information literacy. After mulling about how I write, I think about how I research. How often I focus on footnotes or endnotes. How often I have several different portions of a book open at the same time, ready to be compared, analyzed, and cross-referenced. I think about how I line up passages next to each other. Then I turn to how I engage with sources – not as isolated, individual entities, but as a cog in a network of connections: the books next to the one I went to find in the library, the rest of the articles in the same issue, the sources found in notes and bibliographies. I again am not arguing that I think this is impossible on a digital (especially mobile) device (indeed, we have gained much in terms of resources), but I think the process is different. While our students struggle with the traditional ways to research, they also struggle with the new, burgeoning ways to research, particularly in how to access that network of connections and follow it down the rabbit hole. We should consider carefully how and when we are going to teach both; there is every possibility that they can eventually complement each other, but curriculum will need to be developed deliberately.

In case you missed it, I have a theme in my concerns: namely, that teaching on a mobile device such as the iPad is different in multiple ways. These differences are my focus as I prepare for this experiment.

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English Studies Abroad: Getting Publicity!

It appears my study abroad course is getting even more publicity! There is a mention here in this local newspaper, The Sentinel and Enterprise, article:

Study Abroad Gains Popularity at FSU

–Kisha

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English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode

Sherwood Forest

For anyone who has known me for any length of time, one fact quickly becomes apparent: I’m an avid Robin Hood fan. I have been for as long as I can remember. My first clear memory is watching Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of  Robin Hood, and my college dorm room was decorated with a poster of Flynn in his best heroic pose from the film – that poster now graces my dining room wall. I have an extensive collection of Robin Hood memorabilia that I’ve been amassing for over 20 years. All of this to say, I simply could not leave the outlaw off the syllabus in this course, even though we are not going to make it to Nottingham. This post only serves as a small snippet of an introduction to the character.

One of the first mentions of Robin Hood recorded is in William Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The site “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction” contains a good online resource, as it pulls out from the Skeat version of the three parallel texts (A, B, and C) the passages related to the outlaw legend. The most significant is in Passus B.V in which the sin Sloth lists his shortcomings:

I can nouȝte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre,
Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady the leste that euere was made. (B.V.401-3)

In a similar fashion as Saint Augustine who castigates his younger self at the beginning of the Confessions for loving to read the stories of Aeneas and Dido rather than to focus on God, Sloth here admits to knowing the stories of Robin Hood rather than any prayers or Christian stories. The implication is that the stories of Robin Hood are well-known popular tales at this time. In the guide to an exhibit at the Robbins Library in 2006-07, John Chandler writes, “Sloth’s familiarity with drinking songs about Robin Hood, but utter lack of knowledge of things spiritual, also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.” This echoes Augustine’s disgust with himself over the same issue. And, yet, we all know the popular stories continue to be “more fun.” As a side note, this particular line also plays a role in my interest in memory in Passus V of Piers Plowman. Directly afterwards Sloth talks about forgetting his responsibilities and what he owes to others, making forgetfulness a part of the sin he personifies. The Robin Hood line too speaks to memory in that he can remember what he wants to, just not what he “should.” Selective memory, we call it today.

It is this popularity that makes Robin Hood  a frequent presence in early printed books. For the first part of the week (which was, again, interrupted by snow – I’m beginning to feel that Mother Nature has a grudge), we read selections from the TEAMS Robin Hood and Other OutlawsIn particular, we read the “Early Ballads and Tales,” which mostly originated in the fifteenth century. For whom were these tales written? In their introduction to the text, editors Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren state:

The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985).

The “general agreement” that these tales indicate the “social mobility of the late Middle Ages” and that they appeal to a “wide variety of social groupings” seems like an accurate and useful way to think about them.

The early ballads are quite different from the Robin Hood that has evolved down to us today. Yet, at the same time, we see familiar characters and characteristics. Robin’s home in the greenwood (wherever that greenwood may be – Sherwood Forest or ones nearby) is fairly constant. One of my favorite memories is visiting the Major Oak in Sherwood (photo below). It is an incredibly peaceful location, and it is easy enough to imagine Robin and his merry men living a life of unabashed freedom under its branches.

Sherwood Forest

Also, his companion Little John is generally always nearby. The other familiar figures get added over time. Maid Marian, for instance, seems to be an addition when the tale is transformed into plays performed on May Day. Robin’s association with the spring is seen in the early ballads. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” the tale begins, “Erly in a May mornyng” (l. 10). In “Robin Hood and the Potter,” the season is summer, yet no less descriptive of nature and its bounty:

In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now. (ll. 1-4)

It is no stretch to see how these stories, which laud the greenwood, the newness of leaves, and the singing of birds, became associated with the May Day celebrations. And it is no surprise that Robin needed a lady; thus, Marian was born.

Sherwood Forest

The outlaw himself is not the noble gentleman who only thinks of the poor and the plight of the common man. He is the common man in the ballads, described as a yeoman, and we see him frequently not showing what we have come to know as his trademark chivalrous mercy to his opponents. Indeed, many of the texts end with the death of the opponent. For instance, in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Little John unceremoniously hauls the monk who betrayed his friend to the ground and kills him as another man Much kills the page with him simply to keep him quiet:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell. (ll. 203-6)

It is a bloody scene with little in the way of any kind of mercy for those who oppose the outlaw or his men. Robin Hood’s famous nobility and chivalrous nature are later inventions, added and manipulated for the needs of his various audiences throughout the centuries.

For the second part of the week, we turned away from the late medieval origins of Robin Hood and looked instead at the evolution of the legend and its continued popularity. To that end, we read Stephen Knight’s article “Remembering Robin Hood.” Also, while it feels a bit odd to do so, I assigned my students to listen to/watch a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on this very subject, entitled “Robin Hood, the Once and Future Hero.” The lecture is here for those interested in it:

My point in this lecture is that there are many qualities the Robin Hood legends possess that have kept them alive and vibrant for centuries. One of the major qualities is that greenwood I mentioned earlier. While there are challenges in being exiled from society, “outside” of the “law,” there is also freedom in not having to answer to authority, in seeing those who are corrupt receive the justice they deserve (but might not receive if protected by society). Robin is often depicted, in whatever incarnation, as freely roaming the woods, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, making his own law and living his own code. This is appealing to a variety of people, not the least of which would be children who sometimes chafe against adult authority, which explains why the legend became such a popular children’s story:

[H]is popularity with children and the relatively powerless continued long after the popular vogue of the other medieval romance survivals faded…[H]is identification with unsophisticated readers, especially children, during his extraordinary extended vogue may well explain, even though there is no categorical evidence, his peculiar place in the company of children. (Brockman 68)

Or, as Joseph Falaky Nagy, writes:

The narrative tradition about Robin Hood, which throve in folklore and the popular literature of England from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, reflects the worldwide fascination with the figure of the outlaw, the man who exists beyond human society and has adventures which would be impossible for normal members of society in their normal social environments. (198)

Robin Hood is in a position, that space between civilized and uncivilized, doing what we only think about doing, that speaks to those who, for one reason or another, seek an escape from limitations.

In the Weekly Activity for Robin Hood, the students were asked to pick a film featuring the character (alas, with the exception of the animated Disney version, as it is an “easy” choice) in order to think about its representation of the outlaw, particularly considering how it stacks up against the original tales. There are many lists available of Robin Hood films; one, for example, is on IMDb, if you feel like a marathon (or you could just raid my DVD collection!). What, might you ask, is my favorite? The Adventures of Robin Hood will always have a special place in my heart and, thus, is in a class of its own. Also, it tends to be the iconic image of the hero. The live-action Disney The Story of Robin Hood with Richard Todd is also one I return to often; I think the music makes it particularly special. Interestingly enough, in that one, Robin does not start off as a nobleman. The silent version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is incredible; the full version is available on YouTube, which I have included below. The athleticism of Fairbanks combined with its charming simplicity is, in a word, wonderful. (I also have a soft spot for it because I received as a gift several original props from the film. They are a centerpiece of my collection.) The most recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is disappointing on many levels. Although it attempts to return to the grittiness of the original tales, it fails to capture the lightness and freedom so inherent in the legend. It does, nonetheless, speak to the idea that the story is malleable and can be applied to different situations in various time periods (here, Magna Carta).

Class links:

Next week: we visit Oxford and Tolkien.

–Kisha

PS In my spare time (what little there is!), I am reading the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It reimagines the Robin Hood legend in Wales and sets it during the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is a new take on the story, but, so far, it is working well, and I am far enough in that I can recommend it.

References:

Brockman, B.A. “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood.” South Atlantic Review 48.2 (1983): 67-83. Print.

Chandler, John H. Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero. Exhibition Guide. Robbins Library. University of Rochester, 2006-07. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. The Robin Hood Handbook: The Outlaw in History, Myth and LegendUnited Kingdom: Sutton, 2006. Print.

Fortunaso, Robert. “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

Knight, Stephen. “Remembering Robin Hood.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 149-61. Print.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood.” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 198-210. Print.

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

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English Studies Abroad: Guest Post – Cameron Hunt McNabb

What do you do when you realize that you and another professor at a different university are both teaching Thomas Becket in the same week for study abroad courses? Why, you wheedle that professor into writing a guest post, of course! Actually, it didn’t take much arm-twisting. Cameron very graciously – and very quickly – agreed to guest for us in my ongoing English Studies Abroad series.

Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. She specializes in medieval and early modern drama, and she has articles published or forthcoming in NeophilologusPedagogy, and Early Theatre.

To begin, I’d like to thank Kisha for inviting me to guest post here. She has been a fountain of creative and engaging pedagogy for me, so it’s an honor to contribute to one of her projects.

My study abroad course is following similar lines as Kisha’s, though we are traveling in May for 2 weeks and thus taking the whole Spring semester to prepare. I am also co-leading the trip with our Victorianist, so we’ve organized the course historically, and I’m primarily responsible for materials pre-1700. So far, we have covered Beowulf in connection with Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire gold hoard, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian myth, and the York Corpus Christi plays and the city of York.  This past week, I wanted to cover two major figures in English history—Thomas Becket and Thomas More—as transitions between the medieval and early modern periods, before we usher in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (which we will see in May at the Globe), alongside Stratford, the Globe, and early modern London next week. (For fun, I also assigned the rather historically-accurate “Shakespeare Code” episode of Doctor Who).

As the truncated syllabus above demonstrates, my choices in assigned reading and discussion topics thus far have been conventional. Our readings and discussion for this past week, though, break from the norm. For one, I’m not actually taking our students to Canterbury this May. Given our limited time frame, we had to choose between Cambridge and Canterbury, and the Cantabrigians had it. Therefore, for this past week, I was less concerned about introducing my students to Canterbury Cathedral specifically and more concerned about how the narratives of Becket, and later More, could contribute to our trip overall.

And two, instead of choosing primary texts, I picked popular, artistic depictions of Becket and More. Besides Simon Schama’s A History of Britain series that students watch each week, I assigned them to read T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (because one cannot get enough Eliot!) and watch Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for all Seasons (because one cannot get enough Orson Welles!). These two texts served as backdrops for my lecture “Two Undoubting Thomases” and the discussion that followed.

Although we had already surveyed the city of York, and inevitably its minster, we had not spent much time reviewing the ecclesiastical structures and architecture of medieval and early modern England. I felt that Becket and More would make excellent case studies for these issues. So, I began Wednesday’s class by playing the Te Deum (which is referenced in Murder in the Cathedral) in order to expose students to some medieval liturgy as well as offer a taste of the kind of liturgical experiences we will encounter during our trip, such as attending evensong at St. Paul’s. I also used this opportunity to discuss the design of English cathedrals—transepts, quire screens, nave, chapels, etc.—to prepare them for the numerous cathedrals, other than Canterbury’s, that we’d visit on our trip. I also highlighted, for purposes of practicality, that cathedrals can be their compasses, (almost) always quivering east.

Then we explored the tale of two undoubting Thomases, facing off against two powerful Henrys. The similarities between these two—even the players’ names are the same!—gave force to Eliot’s telling lines: “We do not know very much of the future / Except that from generation to generation / The same things happen again and again.” The histories of Becket and More reify the power struggle between the political and ecclesiastical systems within England and interrogate issues of allegiance and supremacy. The almost-400-year gap between them reveals how pervasive—and unchanging—those struggles and issues were within medieval and early modern England. Some students wryly noted the irony in the oft-repeated line from A Man for all Seasons, “This isn’t Spain. This is England.”  Unfortunately, what it meant to be England wasn’t that far from what it meant to be her Continental counterparts. Thus, the stories of Becket and More showed students the nefarious shadows within the radiant stained glass of those lofty cathedrals.  We concluded by reflecting how More’s famous last words apply equally to both undoubting Thomases: “The King’s good servant, but God’s First.”

Click to enlarge

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