Teaching Literature through Immersion, Induction, & Low-Stakes Writing
In the last row of my Old English classroom, a notoriously tough grader watched as I passed out to my students an excerpt from a facsimile of Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV. Today, my students would put aside their modern, glossed editions of Beowulf, and they would demonstrate whether or not my course had taught them enough about Anglo-Saxon verse to enable them to read the poem in manuscript form. I considered this observation pivotal, because I was the first person to offer an Old English course at Hunter College in many years.
Often, I begin class discussions by asking a student to read the primary text aloud. Now, I asked a student to read the facsimile letter by letter. Trevor, wearing a Metallica t-shirt, began to transcribe, noting the runic letters as I took dictation on the chalkboard. When Trevor faltered over a peculiar letter, I called on Ariana, who gladly pitched in. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s hand shot up: Elizabeth, a math major, had noticed that the passage contained the kenning that she was researching for her final paper. “Wait a second, Liz,” I said, “until we’ve read the whole passage.” Then, after we had established the rest of the text, we re-read the lines, showing off our pronunciation skills for the observer. “Does anyone recognize this passage?” I asked. “This is the scene where Grendel first approaches,” Mark noted. Liz chimed in about the kenning, wondering aloud how the passage might fuel her thesis. Felicia, as the class’s steadfast defender of Grendel, offered a rough translation.
As we pored over several more excerpts from the facsimile, I made sure to call on Jay, a shy ESL student. In response to my query, Jay pointed out that the manuscript contained a scribal error. Jay’s observation led Liz to recall a term from the reading—“dittograph”—and I posed another question: “How does this dittograph prove or disprove Kiernan’s argument about the poem’s composition?” Mark and Ariana took opposing views, arguing for the relevance of the dittograph as proof of the poem’s contemporaneous composition with the creation of the manuscript. We segued into the day’s secondary readings: for this session, the class had read the introduction to Kiernan’s The Beowulf Manuscript, but my two German majors had received a special assignment. As part of my efforts to credit the unique talents of each student, I had asked the German majors to report on Forster’s untranslated Die Beowulf-Handschrift.
At the back of the room, my observer, the medievalist Sylvia Tomasch, displayed expressions of happy incredulity. Tomasch and I both knew that the diversity of our student body can make close linguistic work especially difficult, and that Old English isn’t an easy sell. But I had challenged my students throughout the semester to read and internalize Old English, and they now were demonstrating their fluency with primary works and secondary sources.
Tomasch wrote in her observation report that my students were “obviously ready and willing to ask and answer hard questions and contend with difficult materials.” As Tomasch put it, the session had moved “through different pedagogical modes—Socratic Q&A, discussion and debate, close reading, historical contextualization,” so that a variety of approaches created “a significant intellectual occasion.” Tomasch explained my methods: she noted that I ask students to write a low-stakes paper for each session, and that I use “visual, aural, literary, textual, paleographic, and historical issues” in order to teach students “to fully understand the complexity of the endeavor on have embarked.” I would add to Tomasch’s observation one further element that characterizes my pedagogy: my commitment to experimentation.
I see the classroom as an opportunity for bold innovation. So, for example, in my Beowulf class I pioneered a method of teaching Old English through immersion (a major departure from the traditional, grammar-translation method). Also in a spirit of experimentation, I have developed a module for teaching Middle English literature in freshman composition. Medievalist Marlene Hennessy, observing that course, called it “easily the best [she] had observed in eight years.” And, similarly, my History of the Language course uses primary materials rather than a textbook, so that students discover linguistic phenomena through immersion (e.g. by performing Midsummer Night’s Dream in the original pronunciation). My willingness to take pedagogical risks often inspires my students to become more creative—like when my students recently decided to collaborate on a poem written in a Chaucerian rhyme scheme.
The writing process grounds my experimentation. I teach writing as a process, and I use the writing process as a way to teach the subject. All of my courses feature a series of short, low-stakes papers that lead students through the development of complicated, well-researched arguments. Meanwhile, my students also write in a variety of other genres. Sometimes I give writing assignments like, “Read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, then write a letter to someone who has humiliated you. In your letter, describe your visit to the Cloisters Museum of Medieval Art.” Or, “Read ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ before you visit the Eric Garner Memorial, and write a page about how the poem influenced your experience.” Such assignments train students to explore literature from multiple viewpoints. Likewise, in my composition courses, I use a variety of low-stakes assignments in multiple genres, employing a variation in rhetorical occasion in order deepen students’ engagement.
I believe in literature, in writing, in the power of poetry. I teach with a high regard for the needs of each of my students, whose individual interests and talents I try to cultivate. Through immersion, induction, and writing-intensive means, I move my students toward a deeper relationship with textuality and the literary arts.