Tison Pugh

title.none: Ashton and Sylvester, Teaching Chaucer (Tison Pugh)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.021 08.02.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Tison Pugh, University of Central Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Ashton, Gail and Louise Sylvester, eds. Teaching Chaucer. Teaching the New English Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. x, 167. ISBN: $27.95 (pb) ISBN-10: 1-4039-8827-7, ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-8827-0 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.21

Ashton, Gail and Louise Sylvester, eds. Teaching Chaucer. Teaching the New English Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. x, 167. ISBN: $27.95 (pb) ISBN-10: 1-4039-8827-7, ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-8827-0 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Tison Pugh
University of Central Florida

This review, boiled down to its essence, needs to answer a specific and succinct question: will reading Gail Ashton and Louise Sylvester's Teaching Chaucer make you a better teacher?

Teaching Chaucer appears as part of the series "Teaching the New English," a project of the English Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy, which is itself affiliated with Royal Holloway, University of London. In series editor Ben Knight's preface, he describes the "implicit invitation of this series . . . to take fields of knowledge and survey them through a pedagogic lens" (vii.) A laudable goal, certainly, and one that I believe must be more energetically incorporated throughout the academy: scholarly brilliance ineffectively disseminated is scholarly brilliance eventually lost, and the future of the humanities depends upon professors teaching their subjects with the necessary skill sets and pedagogical strategies to engage new generations of readers. A surgeon who knows the human body as intimately as the back of his or her hand, but who lacks the hand-eye coordination to put the pieces back together on the operating table, is little more than a butcher; likewise, if we have imbibed Chaucer's canon to its last line and rhyme but cannot effectively communicate that knowledge to our students, our erudition deadens into solipsism, and their anesthetized stares pay us back silently yet surely.

Ashton describes the unique position of Teaching Chaucer within the field of pedagogical studies in its focus on decentering the instructor-led classroom: "It is precisely this top-down, authoritative model of the teacher disseminating a body of knowledge (scholarship) that has shifted. This collection explores the notion of teacher as guide, facilitating a hands-on supported learning that takes place in dialogue with active learners" (2, her italics). This concern for student-centered pedagogical strategies unites the essays of the collection, which approach the challenges of teaching Chaucer (and his Middle English) from a myriad of stimulating perspectives.

Peggy Knapp's "Chaucer for Fun and Profit" opens Teaching Chaucer, and in it she describes a Chaucer course in which Raymond William's historicism, Immanuel Kant's aesthetics, and Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics provide the theoretical background for exercises that ask students to grapple with questions of language and identity. By focusing on certain words that Chaucer repeatedly turns to-she gives "privetee," "gloss," and "aventure" as her examples-Knapp's students explore how words participate in the construction of textual meaning through their sociohistorical contexts; she builds upon this foundation by requiring students to adapt social roles pertinent to Chaucer's fictions and then by evaluating how a word's meaning can shift through a given lens of perception. Steven F. Kruger's chapter, "A Series of Linked Assignments for the Undergraduate Course on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales," outlines a chain of projects designed to assist students in producing rigorous critical analysis. Such a skill is too often assumed to be possessed by our students before entering our classrooms, one which they may need to hone but not one which they need to be taught, but this assumption, at least from my experience, is increasingly unfounded. Kruger prepares his students for a terminal essay project with four preliminary assignments-translating Middle English, researching a historical question related to the Canterbury Tales, expanding the research on the historical question, and incorporating scholarship into the developing analysis. Such a step-by-step process, Kruger argues, encourages students to see research as a multi-faceted endeavor, as well as one that can be broken down into more easily manageable portions.

Similar to Kruger in terms of breaking down complex pedagogical strategies into discrete units, Fiona Tolhurst, in "Why We Should Teach-and Our Students Perform-The Legend of Good Women," demonstrates the efficacy of performance in teaching Chaucer. She describes an assignment in which students perform narratives from The Legend of Good Women in four primary steps: planning, rehearsal, performance, and evaluation. The goal of the assignment is "to make the group's interpretation of the text visible to an audience" (52), and Tolhurst compellingly presents ways to couple this creative exercise with intellectual rigor. In "'Cross-voiced' Assignments and the Critical 'I'" Moira Fitzgibbons details a series of suggestions that parallel Tolhurst's ideas about performing, as well as Knapp's suggestions about adapting social roles. She asks her students "to take on a fictional voice" (65), "to try on a new kind of 'I'" (66), in their readings and response papers so that they can critically examine the ways in which identity influences interpretation. Fitzgibbons combines analytical rigor with an imaginative and engaging assignment, as students must demonstrate in their analysis of their roles that they have mastered an understanding of literary genres, displayed originality and creativity through the assignment, considered how Chaucer positions himself vis-à-vis fictional speakers, explored how medieval sociocultural and historical perspectives illuminate a passage, and comprehended how Chaucer deploys various rhetorical strategies (78-79).

In "Teaching the Language of Chaucer," Louise Sylvester argues that "the idea of teaching the language of Chaucer in British universities in the twenty-first century is one that needs to be problematised rather than described" (81). Sylvester's argument primarily considers the merits of various approaches to teaching Chaucer's Middle English and is thus less focused on practical steps to undertake in teaching this English (which, I would argue, is the foremost and unique challenge we face as professors of his literature). Some approaches that Sylvester advocates for teaching Chaucer's language include sociolinguistics and stylistics, and in regard to the latter, she suggests "introduc[ing] students to some of the basic concepts in stylistics: textual cohesion, achieved through the use of pronouns and the definite article, conjunctions, ellipsis and lexical choices; modality; shifts in speech reporting between direct and indirect speech, for example, and showing how Chaucer's use of these stylistic possibilities differs from that of his contemporaries, and from writers working in later periods" (93). This idea provides the foundation of what is sure to be a scintillating course, but since these suggestions comes in the essay's final paragraph, it is too late to cogently map out ideas for successfully running this course, or even a series of exercises related to it. Simon Horobin's essay, "Teaching the Language of Chaucer's Manuscripts," advocates using facsimiles of Chaucer's manuscripts to engage students in linguistic issues. The sample questions he distributes for this assignment are eminently practical (99-100), and although in many ways the lessons he proposes are quite advanced, this pedagogical strategy is so well designed that it could be adapted to virtually any Chaucer classroom. Horobin's final rationale for his pedagogy, as a "useful way of encouraging students not to rely uncritically on modern editions of medieval texts and provoking them to consider the ways in which editors impose regularity and consistency on Middle English texts" (103), invites students to consider the editorial decisions necessary to produce a modern edition of a medieval text, and thus to understand how others' decisions affect their interpretive praxis.

The final three essays of Teaching Chaucer-Gail Ashton's "Creating Learning Communities in Chaucer Studies: Process and Product," Philippa Semper's "'The wonders that they myghte seen or heere': Designing and Using Web-based Resources to Teach Medieval Literature," and Lesley Coote's "Chaucer and the Visual Image: Learning, Teaching, Assessing"-collectively address the ways in which computer technologies can be successfully integrated into the Chaucer classroom. Ashton addresses her "philosophy of collaborative learning . . . which respects and highlights individual group members' abilities and contributions" (110); she points out that "[c]ollaborative learning works best when everyone, including teachers, buy-in to its ethos" (112). Semper suggests ways of organizing information on course websites, and this vast topic could in itself serve as the topic of a book. I think it safe to posit that few Chaucerians receive training in web (or any other kind of) design during their graduate studies, and thus Semper's suggestions, particularly those under the heading of "Content" (125-30), should prove valuable to teachers attempting to organize the vast array of primary and supplementary materials necessary for their courses. (On an editorial note, it is unfortunate that Figures 8.1 and 8.2 are misidentified in this chapter.) Coote proposes using visually based presentations in virtual learning environments, which takes seriously our cultural shift into increased visuality. His appendices on "Using VLE [Virtual Learning Environments] and other forms of IT [Information Technology]" and "Some ideas for clip analysis" are particularly helpful (149-51). The volume concludes with a bibliography and two brief but instructive appendices, "Suggestions for Further Reading" and "Web Resources."

What is most impressive about Teaching Chaucer as a collection of essays is its shared focus on the institutional settings in which these lessons are delivered. The inherent difficulty of much pedagogical advice arises in the need to tailor it to fit the student populations of diverse classrooms. By focusing so carefully on the ways in which their lessons are hatched within particular institutional incubators, the contributors model the concentrated attention to their students necessary for virtually any lesson to be successful. In terms of my own teaching, I look forward to integrating ideas from most of these essays (particularly those of Knapp, Kruger, and Horobin) into my classroom.

And so, to answer the question with which I began this review--will reading Teaching Chaucer make you a better teacher?--my answer is yes.