My Brit Lit classes are gearing up for our read-through of the Nun's Priest's Tale on Friday. This is fast becoming an annual tradition, timed to coincide -- more or less -- with the eve of Talk Like a Pirate Day. Talk Like Chaucer Day? Or is it more like Talk Like a Chicken Day? I do not know. I suspect that I will be the only one with the nerve to make chicken noises to embellish her part. Hey, I'm the only one who can sight-read Middle English with any degree of fluency, so I have to do something embarrassing to level the playing field.
Anyway, the students have been in and out of the office all week to practice their parts: one or two on Monday, more on Tuesday, a small flurry today, and, I predict, a flood tomorrow.
It's interesting to watch them when they're all trying something new and unfamiliar. Some of them have clearly prepared, or perhaps over-prepared; they listen to the sound files on the Harvard Chaucer page and come into the office with their lines written out phonetically. Some (mostly the young men) sail in, brashly confident that they can figure it out as they go along (reading a few lines usually disabuses them of this notion). Everybody makes mistakes, of course. I tell them they're supposed to make mistakes. What's interesting is how they handle them. Some freeze up every time they come to a word they're not sure about, wanting to be told the correct pronunciation. Some correctly generalize after they've been corrected a few times -- once they know that "my" should be pronounced "me," they figure out, without being told, that "by" is "be," "time" is "teem," and so forth. Some remember how to pronounce "my" after only one mistake, but can't seem to generalize. Some plow through line after line, laughing nervously every time I correct them, then making exactly the same mistake in the next line. Some -- and these tend to be my favorite students -- ask questions about why the pronunciation is this or that, and whether you roll your r's in Middle English, and what's up with that Great Vowel Shift anyway?
You learn stuff about your students this way. It's interesting. That's partly why I do it, to be honest -- I'm not expecting any of them to learn to pronounce Middle English particularly well, and even if they do, it's not like this particular skill is good for anything except a very nerdy party trick.
I do it, also, because it gets them into the office, and requires them to try something new, and forces them to speak up in front of their classmates and risk making mistakes (in a low-stakes context -- everyone gets at least a B on this assignment unless they totally half-ass it and don't even make an attempt at the Middle English pronunciation). Besides, the final product, the read-through, is as collaborative as it gets -- everybody has a part, and we all get to hear the play of voices as the foxes and chickens and narrators read in turn. And I think all of these things are desiderata, especially at this point in the semester.
And the whole endeavor is a bit of a journey -- a journey that involves lots of stumbling and wandering by the way -- and it's just occurred to me that this is a nice parallel for the Canterbury Tales as a whole, since it's all about this group of flawed human beings quarreling and distracting each other and yet struggling, perhaps without fully realizing it, toward transcendence.
A couple of students made startlingly brilliant observations in class this week; I always like it when they come up with interpretations that hadn't occurred to me. One of them was in the 11:00 class, which is full of Startlingly Brilliant Folk. We were talking about the Wife of Bath's Tale, and I said something about how this was one of those cases where the tale seems wiser than the teller (because you don't expect the Wife of Bath to come up with that eloquent bit about gentilesse, not from what we've seen of her so far). And one kid said maybe she becomes wiser in the course of telling the tale -- she is on pilgrimage, after all, and presumably in search of enlightenment.
And that was lovely. But the other moment floored me (partly because it was in the 8:00 section, and I admit I've already started to expect less from that class). We were discussing the Pardoner's Tale this morning, and the way he goes into his sales pitch at the end, but nobody's buying his pig's bones and old pillowcases because he's already confessed he's a total fraud. Now, I tend to read the PT as an exploration of the power of storytelling, for both good and evil, but I suggested that his failure to land a sale meant this power has limits.
No, said one student, it means the tale HAS done its work -- it's taught the audience the lesson they need to learn, even if it's not the one the Pardoner intended to teach. They make the right choice, after all. The tale is getting the better of the teller.
Man, I love Chaucer :)