Friday, September 4, 2009

Courseblogging: Why

The students have been getting their feet wet with Middle English for the last week or so -- first a selection of lyrics, then the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. On Friday of last week, when they'd just gotten their first taste of Middle English poetry, I invited them to write down their questions. (Not to ask questions, as I would have done back in grad school; for if I have learned nothing else, I have learned that about two-thirds of them never will raise their hands, not even if I invite them to swap papers and ask someone else's question instead of their own.)

The questions, as always, were excellent. They ranged from the very specific (What does "grislich" mean? What is meant by "hevene queene," is that Mary?), through the shrewd generalizations and observations (Why do so many of the words start with y? Why is April spelled "Aprille" in one poem and "Averil" in another?) to the very broad (How many people spoke this kind of English? Does anybody speak this language today? What made the old kind of English change into the language we speak today?) (Alas, I had no answer for this last student; all I could do was refer the whole class to my medievalist colleague's History of English course if they wanted to know more. Who knows, one or two of them might even enroll.)

And then there were the "why do we have to study this?" questions: Why is it important to know middle English? What is the relevance of Chaucer to today's society?

Like a lot of early English lit folks, I tend to cringe at the word "relevance" (and its evil twin, "relatable"); The Rebel Lettriste has an eloquent post explaining why. But at the same time, I've got to acknowledge that the question is fair play, at least when it comes from the aspiring nurses and chefs and accountants who fill the gen ed classes. And it's a question I can't answer for them. They have to find their own answers. I told them so, at the beginning of the next class period; but not before I played them this.

That blows my mind, I said. That people are still recording and performing this song, some five-hundred-odd years after it was written. That this is still living literature. For me, that's why.


R said...

Oh, relatability. You and your insidious ways... The thing I can't seem to get my students out of is thinking that if they *have* related to something, then that's it--that's the point of reading and analysis, and they're done. Which is possibly worse, at least in a classroom setting; it's possible to get students who couldn't find a reason to study something (because it wasn't "relatable") to see the use in studying it, but it seems harder to get them to take on *new* ways of looking at something, if they think they already know why we should be looking at it. At least it has been in my experience.

Ivy Climber said...

I am in a completely different field (not in the humanities) and we also get the "why do I need to know this question" from students who are taking the course to fulfill a requirement. One of my colleagues has come up with an answer that I think is very good. He tells them that before going to graduate school, he was a manager in a small business. Some of the employees he managed knew how to think for themselves, figure stuff out, and get the job done even if it was a new task. Others required hand-holding at every step of the way. While he can't teach them how to do the tasks that they will need to do later in life, college classes are partly about getting practice in learning new stuff and getting better at processing it and being able to use it. The broader your intellectual repertoire, the faster you will learn new things. The content of the courses *almost* doesn't matter; we want students who learn to process ideas and apply them.

Fretful Porpentine said...

R -- You know, that may go along way toward explaining why I feel like I hate teaching Hamlet. Maybe we'll read Troilus and Cressida next year; I'm pretty sure nobody will have related to that yet!

Ivy Climber -- In some ways, I think that's a useful argument for a broad education -- but at the same time, I prefer to give students a few non-utilitarian reasons why we do what we do, you know? Because the real point of college isn't to become more employable, it's just to become, full stop.

R said...

Hee, yes. I had a fairly awkward classroom moment once when one of my students started telling us all about how he could totally relate to Hamlet in the graveyard scene, and his behavior toward Laertes and Ophelia. I think my entire response consisted of "..."

It's a tricky question to answer, "why should we study this stuff?" Because on the one hand, I do agree with the idea that studying literature requires you to hold various ideas in dialogue with each other, and promotes critical thinking, and that's all good. But there is a part of me that also thinks that it's amazing that the past reaches out to us through literature, even in a mediated way--but what do you do with that in a classroom, without simply being appreciative or focusing on relevance? Do I pretend that I *don't* have emotional responses to the texts I love? I don't know.

Digger said...

How often do you ask them to submit questions this way?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Digger -- Not that often, maybe once or twice a semester. I do it when we hit something I know students struggle with (e.g., Middle English), and sometimes on the first day of classes in freshman comp (because freshmen are always wondering about stuff that professors blindly assume is self-evident, and they rarely want to be the first one to ask).

Digger said...

Thank you!

the rebel lettriste said...

Your students sound quite canny!

One of my favorite responses to the whole "why-do-we-have-to-read-this" whine (which is also connected to the "Miss!-this-stuff-is-bougie" complaint) is this:

"Do you want to bet that our president has read this stuff, and thought about it, and written papers on it? Well, now you can join him and everybody else who's ever read a Great Book."

It's about independent thinking, and about participating in something larger than yourself. Not so much about ... relatability.