Category Archives: Teaching

Guest Post – Jenny Adams: Humor, Guilt, and Ethical Choice: The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching the Miller’s Tale

We are fortunate to have another friend of MassMedieval as a guest. Please read and enjoy her thoughts about teaching the Miller’s Tale. Thank you, Jenny!

Jenny Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of MassachusettsShe has articles in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, the Journal of English Germanic Philology, Essays in Medieval Studies, The Chaucer Review, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and the Journal of Popular Culture. Her book, Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press) was published in 2006, and her edition of William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse (TEAMS Middle English Texts series) appeared in 2009.

By any measure, the Miller’s Tale contains the funniest lines of Chaucer’s oeuvre.  It all starts when Alison puts her ambiguously identified “hole” out the window for Absolon to kiss, which he does “ful savourly.”  On the heels of this comes Nicholas’s attempt to “amenden al the jape” [improve the joke] and flaunt his own naked “ers.”  His ensuing fart helps Absolon brand him with the red hot coulter, an act that delivers the story’s coup-de-grace.  As Nicholas cries out “Water!” John, who sleeps in the barn and awaits the second flood, cuts down the tub he has so carefully hung from the barn roof, thereby injuring his own body and exposing himself as a fool.   I’ve taught this story for fifteen years, and it still makes me smile.   But the Miller’s Tale no longer makes me laugh. 

It was not always thus.  When I first came to the Miller’s Tale, I was like Alison.  No, I was not weasel-like in body, nor were my eyebrows “ful smale ypulled.”  Rather I had the innocence with which the Miller imbues her.   At age 18 (Alison’s own age, incidentally), I shared her “Tee Hee” at her silly antic, one that subsequently puts in play a chain reaction of jokes.  Minutes later, my “Tee Hee” soon morphed into a full belly laugh, one that upset the woman next to me at the UCLA library.  It made me love Chaucer.  It turned me into a medievalist.

Today, though, I gaze on the Miller’s Tale with a more Reeve-like eye, suspicious of the story and his motives for telling it.  Unlike Oswald, I’m not so foolish as to read myself into it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but read the tale’s riotous ending in context that, while not excluding the story’s humor, doesn’t account for it.   As I try to impress on my students, these lines necessarily provoke a more complicated reaction than a simple “Tee Hee.”  John’s injury ultimately leaves us frustrated by his ignorance and also angry at the clerical failure on display.  We can definitely blame John for willful insistence on ignorance, but the parish officials must share some of the blame for his duping.  Similarly, Nicholas, whose lines echo those of Arcite, forces us to read the Miller through the lens of the Knight’s Tale as we wondered about the ways the tension between free will and fate in turn shape our capacity for ethical choice.  And finally, the weirdly prescient mind-reading of Nicholas—“A berd!  A berd!” he cries in response to Absolon’s thinking of the same word—raises questions about the relationships between men, both here and in the other tales around it.

All of this is well-trodden ground in Millereque interpretation.  Today, when I taught it, I posed no radical readings, my goal being simply to open up the text to my students so that they could 1) understand the complications embedded in it, and then 2) come to their own conclusions about it.

Yet this act itself represents an ethical choice on my part and a bit of guilt.  For opening up these lines in academic ways necessarily forecloses them in others.  Once one starts reading closely, it’s hard to go back to the “Tee Hee.”  Which in turn makes me realize that while my first reading makes me Alison, my subsequent readings make me John.  While his willful repression of some knowledge might literally cripple him, there is a way I, too, yearn to overlook Chaucer’s “privitee,” to ignore the preaching of the academic glossers, and to recapture my “Tee hee.”

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Offending the Unmedieval

What does “medieval” mean?

As a teacher of medieval literature, this is obviously a question I confront every semester. The name, as a name, has long since ceased to register any value-related meaning for me, and when I think about the texts I teach or the scholarly pursuits in which I engage, I don’t think about the word “medieval” any more than I think about the name “John.”

The name matters, though, if only because it serves to cordon off a span of time and space from that which came before, came after, or happened elsewhere. It shambles together a supposed unity of thought and substance that is almost wholly contingent on perception.

But of course it’s more than that—it’s a vestige of censure, a reminder of the judgment of later writers against the backwardness of the period. It dismisses a millennium in the span of mankind’s relatively short recorded history as unproductive. Stagnant. Wrong. The swamp from which a bridge protects one’s grateful feet.

Periodization matters, of course, because it creates itself by accustomed usage. It is because of “medieval” that students think Chanson de Roland and Piers Plowman are connected, but Piers Plowman and Pilgrim’s Progress are alien to one another (it is also why a university might have only one scholar of “the Middle Ages,” but two or three for each century after the sixteenth—and why, in many courses, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Beowulf or, heaven help us, Morte D’artur provides “medieval coverage” in a survey course which might dedicate eight weeks to the seventeenth century). It’s also why a writer like Stephen Greenblatt can still write a book like The Swerve, with its apparently unironic resurrection of a Burckhardtian historical narrative (visit Jim Hinch’s piece in the L.A. Review of Books for a thorough examination of the book’s problems, or  In the Middle for reaction to the continuing slew of awards the book has inexplicably garnered).

I don’t need and don’t intend to write a defense of the medieval period—certainly it would be (one hopes) superfluous on a blog dedicated to things medieval, and in any case that sort of thing is inevitably read as defensive justification rather than the cool-headed contempt I like to think I exude when confronted with uninformed anti-medieval prejudice. I’m really more interested in pursuing a discussion of the usefulness (or cost) of the idea of the medieval.

There’s already some great material out there on this subject—Alexander Murray’s 2005 essay “Should the Middle Ages be Abolished?” (Essays in Medieval  Studies 21 (2005)) is an accessible introduction to the question, and I’m thinking about making it a part of my next iteration of the medieval literature survey. My goal, however, is not to spend time defending the medieval (or, at least, not until it needs it); I’m hoping instead to help my students to reconfigure the place of the medieval in their mental landscapes. In other words, as the title of this post suggests, I want to turn the tables a bit. I don’t want to defend the medieval from the slings and arrows of Burckhardt, Greenblatt, and outrageous Fortune; I want to offend against the terms and mentalities that conveniently section off “the Middle Ages” and, in doing so, help my students to understand that the medieval remained (and remains) a shaping force in the lives of those who lived (and live) after it.

Since this blog is about the role of medieval studies in Massachusetts State Universities, and more generally in higher education, I’d like very much to hear from others about the problems—and opportunities—created for you as an instructor by the concept of “the medieval,” and how you deal with the “Middle Ages” construct in your courses. The floor is open…

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This Rough Magic: “Teaching the Crusades in a World Literature Survey Course Using Interactive Media”

Just a note (okay, shameless plug) for my article in the latest issue of the This Rough Magic (A Peer-Reviewed, Academic, Online Journal Dedicated to the Teaching of Medieval and Renaissance Literature). It is an overview of my approach to teaching the Crusades in a World Literature survey course. Enjoy!

“Teaching the Crusades in a World Literature Survey Course Using Interactive Media: An Overview”

–Kisha

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A survey survey

I’m preparing (once again) to teach the omnipresent British Literature I survey. No matter how many times I set up the reading schedule, there’s always a moment when I’m stuck, looking at the remaining blocks of time and thinking, “Why don’t I have room for Marie de France (or Spenser, or the Battle of Maldon, or medieval drama, or whatever that semester’s victim might be)? How’d that happen?”

There are reasons for this, of course, mostly having to do with my insistence on spending more time in the Anglo-Saxon period than most of my colleagues. My current iteration of the course breaks the material into three units: Anglo-Saxon (four weeks), Medieval (five weeks), and Early Modern (five weeks), the last of which ends up with a couple of late texts awkwardly tacked on post-Milton. I realize that not everyone makes time for Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon, or Judith in the early going of a survey, but for the life of me I can’t understand why…

So, okay, I’m a medievalist and I want to know that people are reading the stuff I love. But the problem isn’t (exclusively) due to my prejudices–there’s a real problem with the survey’s mandate. As is the case at many institutions, Brit Lit I at Bridgewater was established with an arbitrary end-date–in our case, the course ends at 1800.
I know this is a fairly common point at which to break the survey, but it’s a terrible stopping point–not only does it mean that the course is designed to cover over a millennium’s worth of literature (not to mention going from Anglo-Latin through the various historical periods of English), it forces a terribly awkward coda to the course with one of three results:

1. The final texts of the course are chosen to avoid the novel-length elephant in the 18th-century room (and therefore do not accurately inform the students of the literary developments of the period)

2. The course must grapple with early novels at the very end of a whirlwind semester that has already introduced virtually everything else (because someone, somewhere, decided that Pamela or Tom Jones is a logical text to end a course that began with Bede).

3. The course, by design, ignores the final century or so of its mandated coverage, with the result that 18th century literature undeservedly falls through the cracks of student perception and understanding.

A logical alternative would be to end the course before the rise of the novel, with the second half of the survey picking up the thread and introducing the novel as it debuts in English letters. I’d grudgingly accept 1700 as an arbitrary endpoint, or 1688 (for Oroonoko) or 1678 ( for Pilgrim’s Progress) as a slightly less arbitrary one. Given my druthers, I’d probably end the course at either 1649 or 1674, depending on whether I’ve got my historian or literary hat on. Given tyrannical overlordship of the course catalog, I’d probably end it at 1485 for both historical and literary reasons and let the second half of the survey deal with all that postmedieval stuff…

So I propose a topic of conversation for those who teach (or have taken) the Brit Lit I survey at their respective institutions. What’s the logical endpoint for the survey, and why?

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CFP: Journal Issue on Teaching the Middle Ages and Renaissance with New Techniques and Technologies

Following in the illustrious footsteps of my fellow blogger and the New England Saga Society (NESS), I am looking to put together a special journal issue for  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (SMART). The focus of this special issue will be on the teaching of medieval and Renaissance texts, courses, and/or assignments through new pedagogical technologies. I am defining this concept rather broadly, especially as I hear about the ideas of those interested. If you are interested, please consider sending me a description of your idea.

Please contact me by August 1, 2013, with a short abstract (approximately 250 words). Send to: ktracy3@fitchburgstate.edu

I am hoping to gather completed articles by December 15th, 2013, though this may change depending on the abstracts submitted.

A bit about SMART (from their site): “Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (SMART) is a journal of essays designed to assist teachers in communicating an understanding of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Since we believe that excellent research and inspired teaching are dual aspects of a revived medieval/Renaissance curriculum, SMART essays are scholarly and pedagogical, informative and practical…Authors are held to high standards of accuracy, currency, and relevance to the field of medieval studies. All papers are judged by at least two peer reviewers….Papers vary greatly in length but typically are at least seven double-spaced pages, or about 2,500 words.”

Given my own approaches to teaching such courses, I am looking forward to hearing from others! I personally am considering contributing my work with wikis. There are so many resources available to us these days, and I am intrigued by the possibilities for teaching medieval and Renaissance curriculum. I think such a special journal issue could be a valuable resource.

–Kisha

PS Need some ideas? This is an interesting Prezi designed by Derek Bruff on Social Pedagogies. These are BY FAR not the only techniques/technologies relevant to this journal issue, but it might get the creative juices flowing.

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Of Drama and Marie de France: Day 3, Kalamazoo

Day 3: Medieval Drama and Marie de France

Today began with me playing moderator to a session sponsored by the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society, “Post Death/After Life on the Medieval and Early Modern Stage. Two of the presenters are friends and colleagues of mine, and I was pleased to moderate for them. The three papers were really thought-provoking. For instance, the N-Town Lazarus and the Chester Antichrist plays have a great deal of conditional language in them – “if…then.” The Antichrist in the Chester states (paraphrasing), “If I can indeed bring these people back from the dead, then you shall believe in me.” The consolers in the N-Town make conditional statements concerning what Lazarus should do on his death bed. It made me think about the nature of such statements and how they would work very well in drama. For one, it encourages anticipation – will this indeed happen? Or will such and such character really “fall for it”? It also encourages the audience to consider the conditions on offer. Do they believe it? Would they react differently? Is a character presenting “truth” or is he offering “false truth”? The conditional statements work well in developing engagement.

Another thought this panel raised concerns the Ars MoriendiI have studied the Ars Memoria quite a bit, and it occurred to me while listening to the paper on N-Town by my friend that I should look in to the Ars Moriendi as well. Its discussion of what to do at the end of life, how to meet death, might have some great implications for memory.

After this session, I attended the International Marie de France Society business meeting. I have decided to join, which means I need to return my membership form (note to self). Afterwards I stayed for the Teaching Marie de France roundtable I mentioned here yesterday. Some interesting points of discussion were raised. The first was a link to the site Performing Medieval Narrative Today, which I think is going to be an excellent resource for teaching. In addition, an historian was on the panel, who talked about using Marie de France – Bisclavret, in particular – in his history courses. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I feel history and literature are almost inseparable, and I enjoy hearing about teachers who make the connections between them. I am going to consider using his primary source suggestions in my own teaching of Marie: Fulbert of Chartres, “On Feudal Obligations” and Ranulf de Glanvill, “Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England”. Juxtaposing these next to Bisclavret could promote some productive discussions about lord/vassal relationships, as demonstrated by Bisclavret and the King. 

All for now – I am off to a business meeting of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages!

–Kisha

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The Program: Day 2, Kalamazoo

Day 2: Thinking about the Kzoo Program

This morning I am reflecting on the program of sessions. It’s part of the ritual (or my ritual – I don’t know about anyone else!) to plan out the sessions I want to attend and think about the broad spectrum of work offered by my fellow medievalists. It’s often a mind-boggling experience, given the depth and breadth of topics and disciplines. The sheer number of subjects of which I haven’t even previously heard is humbling as well as exciting.

I am rather conditioned at this point to pick out those sessions and papers with any reference to memory in them. This year, the vast majority of those about memory are Anglo-Saxon-specific. Two sessions in particular, “Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England” (413) and “Memory at Work In Anglo-Saxon England” (519), are entirely devoted to the subject. The first is primarily comprised of papers on Beowulf; the title “Burning to Remember, Eating to Forget” has immense possibilities. The latter session includes a title that intrigues me – “Memory and Identity Formation: A Cognitive Construction of the Self in The Wanderer.” I often teach this text through the concept of memory, particularly its bittersweet components. Is it better to remember or to forget? Which causes the most pain? This title makes me consider the possibilities of the loss of memory dealing the final “death blow” to The Wanderer’s previous life. Is it in the pain of remembering that he still retains what is left of his kin, of his role in society? If he forgets, will he, in essence, cease to exist? Another session, “Text and Image II: Memory and Visual Space” (232), looks interesting. As is not uncommon, there are several individual papers exploring the connections between death and memory.

Coinciding with being hired at Fitchburg State, I have found my interest in panels shifting. Now, at least half of the time, I choose sessions based upon what might be beneficial to me in the classroom. For instance, a roundtable on Friday (260), “Teaching Marie de France” (sponsored by the International Marie de France Society), is calling to me. As I was just mentioning last night, my students adore Marie de France. It has been one of the biggest surprises as a teacher; for some reason, I did not expect her to be such a draw. However, she does have everything – romance, intrigue, werewolves, knight-saving damsels, resurrecting weasels. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. At any rate, I am curious what others have to say.

Then there is always the almost hagiographic torture of the sessions that are happening while I am already booked!

I need a rest, and this is only the program!

–Kisha

 

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The Parlement of Conspiracy Theorists

A few years ago, I started building in a final-day debate in my Chaucer class about the argument mounted by Terry Jones et al. in Who Murdered Chaucer? Our discussion involves looking over the evidence (or, at least, the compelling quirks and lacunae in the historical and literary record which Jones’ crew marshals as evidence) concerning the end of Chaucer’s life. This year, for the first time, I suspect we may decide he was murdered.

I originally began doing this because a student stumbled onto Jones’ book while researching his paper on Richard II’s patronage of Chaucer, and suddenly he (and, quickly, the rest of the class) became obsessed with the thrilling possibility that there might be secret murder waiting for them at the tail end of the course. To save our remaining weeks from devolving into a morass of speculation (mostly from students who hadn’t read Jones’ book and were merely using the “well, sure, that makes sense” form of reasoning that makes logicians cry into their pillows at night), I promised that we’d take the time on the last day of class to lay out everything we knew about Chaucer’s fate.

Three things happened in that first investigation. First, the class, with two holdouts, rejected Jones’ argument as lacking in evidence, though most also said that Who Murdered Chaucer? did effectively undermine their confidence in the traditional non-story of Chaucer’s final months (if you haven’t read the book, by the way, I encourage you to do so at your earliest opportunity–it’s a glaring example of partisan scholarship, but it makes for a fine read–and if its answers aren’t entirely satisfying, its questions are well-put and at least suggest that something’s not quite right with the official explanations). Second, the class was more excited and rigorous than I’d seen them all semester–digging through our textbook, comparing manuscript and historical evidence (I’d put together a handful of “evidence” slides, including the BL MS addl. 5141 portrait of Chaucer, close-ups of Chaucer’s tomb, and a couple of genealogies), proposing hypotheticals, and (bestill my heart) using the indices and textual notes in no fewer than three editions of Chaucer’s works. Third, and perhaps obviously, I decided on the spot that I’d be adding this investigative piece to the end of the course from then on.

I now seed in a few teasers about the final “investigation” meeting over the course of the semester. Every year, students are intrigued, but at the final meeting their conclusions have ranged from “maybe he escaped from England, but we can’t prove it” to “he probably died in the sanctuary at Westminster, but the ‘Complaint to his Purse’ is kind of disturbing.” This year my students are really looking for evidence that Chaucer’s poems and involvement at court was putting him in a potentially dangerous position if ever he lost Richard’s protection, and a couple of students considered papers about whether the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ was specifically written to irritate religious conservatives–and especially Thomas Arundel. Jones’ book, of course, eventually accuses Arundel of Chaucer’s murder…but my students, unless they’ve tracked down the book, don’t yet know that. There’s something of a Da Vinci Code-style close reading going on, which results in some questionable conclusions–but which is also evidence of real thinking and brain-stretching going on, which I’m a fan of.

Over the last couple of meetings, however, things have taken a definite the-truth-is-out-there turn, culminating in a student suggesting that the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ might be a specula principum in which the fox represents the Lords Appellant, Chanticleer stands in for Richard, Pertelote takes the part of those who counsel reconciliation with the Lords, and the barnyard mob which outshouts Jack Straw’s murderous rebels are somehow representative of Richard’s loyal friends and subjects. Sharp-eyed readers of Chaucer, of course, may note that a lot of this reading ends up treating the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ as a kind of echo of the advice-to-Princes reading of the ‘Tale of Melibee’). It’s a new reading of the text, I admit (I tend to think of the chase scene as a moment of Chaucerian exuberance, myself, and have a hard time not humming “Yakety Sax” while reading it), but it’s indicative of an undercurrent in the room. I think this group, for whatever reason, might be the one that buys Jones’ conclusions fully–and if they do, I’m looking forward to hearing what sort of an argument they stitch together to make it work.

It’ll make for an interesting final discussion, in any case…

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Photos from Student Trips to the Higgins

In addition to the photos below, one of my students recently blogged for the university about her experience at the Higgins. I echo John’s sentiments – the Museum’s closing will be a great loss.

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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.

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Fitchburg State University: Everyman (Spring 2012)

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