Thursday, March 01, 2007

When You've Never Taught it Before

The Prentice Chair that I currently hold is given in part to encourage innovation in teaching, and back when I applied for the Professorship I came up with a set of proposals to enhance my teaching and incorporate new material in my work. And although, due to departmental needs, I wasn't able to take any of my course releases until last semester, I have actually managed to do quite a bit of work developing new courses (one of History of the English language hasn't actually managed to make it onto the books yet, but it is done) and revising my old ones.

I'm teaching one of those old ones now, English 207: Medieval Literature: Beowulf and Others (I inherited the ending of the title and, although I thought I killed it off a few years ago, it snuck back into the course name somehow). I have a rule--which I try to persuade others in my department to follow--that I shouldn't teach anything in translation that I can't read in the original language. We do, after all, have departments of Russian, German, French, Spanish, Classics, etc., and it seems to me that the professors in those departments are better qualified to teach Don Quixote or Faust or Madame Bovary, even in English translation, than I am. I've bent this rule a little bit for Dante--I don't read Dante's Italian very well, but having medieval Latin as a background, I can figure out enough to at least answer student questions about individual words, especially since we're using the Robert Pinsky edition with the facing-page translation--but I've generally stuck to it (which is why it will be some years before I teach The Tale of Genji in this class the way I want to). But this year I finally felt that my Old Norse was good enough to teach some Icelandic materials in translation. I put in a few of the Eddic poems (Voluspa, Havamal and Vafthrudnismal) a bit of Gylfaginning (Thor and Utgartha-Loki), plus Hrafnkel's and Egil's Sagas.

Monday and yesterday we did Hrafnkel's Saga (and I highly recommend this as a starter if you've never read any sagas). When I walked into class I got a kind of shaky, nervous feeling that I haven't had in a classroom for a long time (too long, perhaps): I had no idea what was going to happen. And I realized that a big part of the confidence one has in teaching comes from having been a student first and remembering how your teacher taught the material. That's certainly the way it is for me with Chaucer, when I still hear Peggy Knapp's voice in my head when I'm discussing the Wife of Bath or the Clerk's Tale, and I had the good fortune of having several excellent teachers (Peggy Knapp, John Miles Foley, Allen Frantzen) for Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon in general.

But there's a great freedom in having no real deep idea (obviously I'd read some criticism, etc.) of where the discussion of a work of literature should go (not that I always follow these prescriptions, and of course classes go in their own directions). It was scary, but it was incredibly liberating. We had a great discussion of violence and social position in Hrafnkel's Saga, and students agreed that the "moral" was not so much "Sam should have killed Hrafnkel when he had the chance instead of torturing him by hanging him by his achilles tendons," but was instead "See what happense when you try to look like a powerful person when you're not" (i.e., because Sam's letting Hrafnkel live in humiliation, although it was intended to build Sam up, was a step too far for someone of Sam's weak inherent power). We also concluded that the Saga does not so much celebrate violence as it is fascinated by violence: that's an important distinction that I probably would have brought to the class if I'd had a detailed existing agenda.

I don't want to oversell the experience. We have had some better discussions in this class, particularly about Beowulf (which, obviously, I've taught many times), and there was some hesitation in our talking about Hrafnkel's Saga (in part because the students were nervous about pronouncing the names). In fact, I won't even say that it was one of our very best discussions. But it was great in an entirely different way because I hadn't already built in a mental map of how the class was going to go. That tells me that shaking things up, although scary, is good. I'm really looking forward to Egil's Saga (or, as I've tried to sell it, the saga of the world's first poet/serial-killer) and to the other texts I've never taught before. I can't always answer students questions as quickly or easily as I can with other texts, but there are, as you can see, other compensations.

Scott Nokes mentions how busy he's been, and it must be that time in the semester, because I've been so busy that it's taken me this long to thank him for mentioning my new project, Anglo-Saxon Aloud. I'm working on recording the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and posting it, 100 or so lines at a time, in the form of podcasts to the Anglo-Saxon Aloud site. The podcasts are also available on iTunes. So far I think it's gone pretty well. Doing the editing is much more boring than reading and takes more time, but I think I may be able to keep up the 100-lines-per-day pace. So if you want to listen to the first 500 or so lines of Genesis, it's at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. And more Old English poems will follow. Relentlessly.


John Cowan said...

This, Northrop Frye says, is the great thing about professing a classical literature: one person can know it all, more or less, and not have to pant along in the hopeless attempt to keep up: "of the making of many books there is no end."

Jenya said...
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~ Alias Rose Poetry ~ said...

I am currently studying English at the University of London, and I have come across your podcast on the internet - absolutely wonderful, a great help and please do keep it up! It is wonderful to hear Old English spoken fluidly. So much better than mine!

Kristina said...

Tale of Genji is a tricky one--it's not what you learn classical Japanese on, most of the time. But for the wonderful footnotes of Royall Tyler's version, it's not just the same as a parallel text....

That'd be something nice to have, now that I think of it. Not to mention some more detail than even Tyler's notes on a few things. (Probably it's not that he's not good at the court ceremonies--but there wasn't enough room for that information in a non-parallel text.)

It's possible, since Tyler's translation is close enough to one of the standard Japanese texts (no major omissions) to jury-rig one. But even Tyler's dedication to fidelity, I fear, would not prevent the expansion upon various of the vague sentences in the original. Numbers definitely would have to be used.

I'll be thinking about this.

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