Like all of my courses, this course begins immediately with a recitation of poetry. The instructor projects a stanza from Troilus & Criseyde on the blackboard and reads aloud line by line as students repeat. Group recitation creates a community grounded in reading. It allows students to experience the delight of an unfamiliar English somatically, and it teaches students that literature constitutes the course’s first priority. This particular stanza meanwhile introduces students to one of the main themes of the course.
After reading the stanza aloud twice, students begin to paraphrase the stanza (with the instructor glossing particularly difficult words). Next, the students review the syllabus and introduce themselves, with each student stating their name and one noun that describes them. (This exercise engages students in a low-stakes grammar exercise while also providing the instructor with helpful handles for memorizing names.)
Now, working in small groups, the students summarize the main claim of the stanza, and they generate arguments for and against this claim. Although ostensibly a literary exercise, the group activity serves another purpose: it helps students get to know one another. (The instructor purposefully gives students too much time for the assignment, so that they begin to gossip and socialize.)
As required by the English Department, the first day must include a brief, in-class writing diagnostic test. Students finish the session by writing in response to the following prompt: Do you agree or disagree with Chaucer’s claim about how language and love exist in history, and why? This prompt helps students to build a relationship with the poem, which at first might seem intimidating. The lesson proceeds from a class-wide activity, to a group activity, to an individual writing activity, modelling the approach by which students will learn to read Middle English.
Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake them so And spedde as wel in love as men now do; Ek for to wynnen love in sondry ages, In sondry londes, sondry ben usages. (1. 22-28)