We've just completed registration for Spring 08 classes at Wheaton, and I'm happy to report that nearly half of my Anglo-Saxon students were brave enough to decide to continue on and study Beowulf with me this spring. Beowulf is the only course in the Wheaton English department that has a true pre-req --you just can't survive it without having had Anglo-Saxon, so a yield of 14 students isn't bad, particularly when at least five of the class are going away for Junior Year Abroad next semester and another four are seniors who have student teaching in the spring.
I am not attributing this largest-ever-at-Wheaton Beowulf class to the film, however. Instead, I give the students all the credit. They have worked amazingly hard this semester and are plowing through The Dream of the Rood right now. One student, who forgot to bring her translation to class, sight-translated a good long sentence and got it mostly right. (Unfortunately, she is going off Junior Year Abroad next year). All of a sudden the idea of working through all of Beowulf is exciting for them rather than daunting. Exactly as I had hoped, they are now proud of their technical and linguistic mastery and want to expand it. Watering down Beowulf never works for me. Making the technical and detailed interesting always does, whether for junior high and high school students at a lecture at a local library, for inner-city kids from Brockton, or for my own students with richer academic backgrounds. We need not fear the technical and the detailed: it's what makes us special.
(Of course we'll see how they feel when we spend at least 30 minutes of discussion on line 6a, is it reall the Heruli? Who are the Heruli? What about the loss of initial H...heh, heh, heh.
Unfortunately, getting through Beowulf in one semester can eat up a whole lot of class time, so I need to think about how to reconfigure the course for a larger number of students. I want to take some time to teach them paleography (and that means speedball pens, ink and learning to write hands -- I teach paleography the old-fashioned way of learning by doing), and the course is linked to the "Computing for Poets" course (as are the Anglo-Saxon and JRRT courses), which has also filled up, so we will need to spend some time on corpus searching, etc.
It should be great: in the spring I'll be teaching Beowulf and the second half of the Math/SciencFiction (and now also First Year Seminar and FYS course) that I teach with Bill Goldbloom Bloch, so it will be a very technical, mathematical semester in the classroom. And, unfortunately, another semester of being department Chair. But the teaching can make up for that, I hope.