Monday, November 14, 2005

King Alfred's Grammar Really Works!

Ok, that's probably a little bit of hyperbole, but I've used the latest iteration of my grammar book in my Anglo-Saxon class this semester, and we just cruised through 65 lines of Maldon today with plenty of time for in-between-line discussion and more than 80% of the students making acceptable out-loud translations.

When I suggested to a possible publisher of the grammar book (still waiting to hear) that one could teach an entire semester with King Alfred's Grammar and Pope's Eight Old English Poems (previously Seven Old English Poems) an anonymous reviewer stated that jumping right into poetry was too hard for introductory students, who really needed a slow introduction through prose.

Well, in your face, anonymous reviewer! Because my students have got the language down! They picked up subjunctives in Beorhtnoth's speech to the Viking herald. One of my best students caught a preterite-present verb without looking it up ("that looks like a strong verb past tense, but the sentence only makes sense if it's in the present tense" -- woot!). Other students caught subject deletion. They were making detailed stylistic comparisons between The Battle of Brunanburh, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon.

My favorite moment came when a student (who had been sick during the Brunanburh translation and so was just turning it in) said "Professor Drout, I don't really know if I have a right to say this, but I don't think the Brunanburh poet was nearly as good as the guy who wrote Rood or even the guy who wrote Maldon." -- She was picking up on style in poetry in a new language!!!

My point is not only to toot the King Alfred's Grammar horn, but also to point out that students respond very well to being pushed quite hard and challenged -- and as hard as the work has been for them, 13 of the 22 are signed up for all of Beowulf next semester.

So don't give in to the temptation--which will sometimes be pushed by your colleagues--to make things easier in order to keep students in a difficult subject. I heard the poet Robert Pinsky speak about his brilliant Dante translation one time, and he said "people are in love with difficulty." I think my students are right now (though their tune may, of course, change when we do a chunk of Beowulf as the semester's conclusion) and I am certainly enjoying having them carry me along for their adventure.


m. smith said...

Congrats on your success with your students Mike. And I have to say that your King Alfred Grammar is working wonderfully on my end as well in my independent study. I was zipping through translations, and now I'm working on project in linguistics incorporating my new knowledge. Thumbs up!

Erik said...

That's incredibly cool. (Though I have to doubt the skill of someone who thinks prose is “easy”—you-know-who had us cut our teeth on the Old English Bede. That’s only easy if you’re familiar with Latin syntax.)