The Medieval Review 16.04.05

Travis, Peter W., and Frank Grady, eds. Approaches to Teaching Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Second Edition . MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature Series. New York: MLA, 2014. pp. xii, 243. $24.00 (paperback). ISBN: 9781603291415 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas

Originally published in 1980, the first edition of this book was also the very first in the MLA Approaches to Teaching series. A second edition, attuned to our changed teaching environments and concerns, has been long overdue. Travis and Grady's volume will therefore be welcome, particularly by novice teachers or those, like myself, who turn to the series when gearing up for a survey course that demands some range beyond one's area of expertise.

Like its parent text, this edition's opening section surveys materials available for teaching: editions, translations, secondary studies, handbooks, and, now, websites and electronic media, both those labeled "indispensible" and those whose fates are less certain (like the hopelessly out of date Variorum Chaucer Project. In this volume, and on the Project's website, the 2012 edition of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale is omitted, as if not yet released). For multiple reasons, text choice is an acute problem in today's classroom: printed text or electronic edition; Middle English or some form of modernization? Availability itself, as well as cost, may be more of a determinant these days than anything else, and that situation is worth comment. For a course focusing on the Canterbury Tales, we find three principal teaching editions beyond the erstwhile "standard" The Riverside Chaucer and its once useful spinoff, The Canterbury Tales, Complete. These books have become so expensive as to be impractical for basic classroom use and are now largely reserved for graduate students and personal libraries. (N.b. The Riverside Chaucer is now printed in the US as The Wadsworth Chaucer and should be purchased used or in Britain, where the entire edition can be had as a paperback through licensing agreement with Oxford University Press.) The three Middle English texts available are Jill Mann's for Penguin, the Norton Critical Edition, and the selected and complete editions produced by Broadview. (This problem of Chaucer editions is ongoing, and at least two new editing projects are underway.) These editions are described as equals, the major difference being the kind of reading apparatus (gloss and note placement, full glossary, biography, secondary materials etc.) each offers. But Broadview (while an attractive and cost-effective student edition opens by re-punctuating the first eighteen lines of the General Prologue, turning Chaucer's famous opening sentence, "Whan that Aprille…," into two. This is enough to disrupt my first day of teaching and make me distrustful of all editorial decisions that follow.

A majority of contributions in the first edition approached the poem in more abstract ways and were concerned with syllabus construction. Reflecting the broader variety of Chaucer criticism now current, this Approaches volume is more capacious, more varied, and more plural in its presentation of ways to read different tales as well as the poem's larger concerns. Where the first edition presented fifteen contributions, Travis and Grady offer thirty-six, plus their own introductory "Survey of Pedagogical Approaches" and the section on Materials mentioned above. The editors chart how much the teaching of Chaucer has changed since 1980, which they attribute to the influence of theory and to new "blended" learning environments: everything from web-based research assignments to fully online courses or learning modules. But there is also a threat to Chaucer, and to historically canonical "dead, white men" like him, which haunts the volume and provides its unspoken coherence. The authors here are fighting against irrelevance, diminishing numbers of English majors, and a loosening of requirements of all kinds that threaten the Chaucer course in ways that were unknown to a previous generation.

Theory, then, is not just something that has changed the teaching of Chaucer (thought it certainly has), it's the only means of keeping Chaucer alive within the university. The concerns of various kinds of theory are what keep Chaucer inside current critical debates and make for what some students might call "relatability," which is absolutely necessary for the field's sustainability. These connectivities are used to show students the root of current debates and concerns (about gender, sexuality, colonialism, ethnicity, and religious controversy, just to name the most obvious of topics). But they are also used to provoke students to think about historical difference and to re-construct the ways in which our modern assumptions came into being. Chaucer is thus offered as a means of gaining a sharper edge to one's analysis of the present.

The changed university environment appears more pervasively than in the "Strategies" section, where writers announce the classroom diversities with which they deal (at technical institutes; at historically black undergraduate colleges; in teacher training programs; in non-liberal arts environments; in writing programs). But these diversities appear throughout the book, not just in this specialized section. For instance, the two essays on the General Prologue, both of which reflect on students' working lives outside of the classroom, ponder a much less privileged student body than that implicitly universalized in 1980 and provide a welcome shift away from an outdated homogeneity once presumed of students. Also new to this edition and to pedagogy, of course, is the explosion of online and electronic resources available to teachers and students. Keeping up with such media, well beyond the visual or sound recordings of past generations, is a feat in and of itself. As the editors note, "Trying to capture the state of the constantly evolving World Wide Web in printed form is inevitably a quixotic enterprise" (9), and one that few would envy. The book's final section on teaching with and on the Web is likely to be one of its most highly consulted parts.

Like other volumes, this one reflects the responses of survey participants to the set of questions included in the volume (21-25), and these responses organize the book, making for an enlarged section on varied teaching environments. (Teaching to non-majors and in surveys was treated in the previous edition, by the way.) These contributions are often more interesting sociologically than they are strictly helpful, as they chart something of the fate of the humanities in our current higher ed climate. After reading them, I concurred with one contributor, who openly chronicled the bull-headed way he tried to put Chaucer on every kind of first-year syllabus he wrote: this was largely a bad idea. While this essay was a bit amusing and might be helpful for another new, overly enthusiastic teacher, I am unsure that this volume was the place for the strictly autobiographical. There are other contributions in the volume I found less than useful to its purpose of teaching the The Canterbury Tales: one on Chaucer's prose tales that are hardly ever taught, another on the ways Chaucer can be used to illustrate Lacan for a class on psychoanalysis, another on using calligraphy. In these places, inclusivity led to incoherence.

Inclusivity demands participation, which in our computer age should be less of a problem than before. Ironically, participation seems to have been a struggle. At the end the volume, a few pages list the survey participants. Excluding Travis himself, sixty-four teacher-scholars responded, and more than half of them contributed essays to the volume, lending the character of "crowd-sourcing." While this second edition is varied and inclusive, we might also note the number of MLA members that received the survey but who did not reply (between 2011-2015 the LLC Chaucer Forum averaged over 1300 members). The first edition's more exclusive set of essays (which are in no way "elite") was drawn from more than 100 survey participants. What might Travis and Grady have done with some cherry picking beyond or in addition to the survey respondents? The opening three essays, each deal with problems of language, meter and prosody. There is much overlap in them, and they could have used a stronger editorial hand. The first of these essays, an approach out of a time capsule on how to spend a month teaching the International Phonetic Alphabet as a prelude to teaching Chaucer is deadly.

The value of the volume is to be found in its attention to individual tales. Indeed when I go to this series, I am generally most interested in detailed ways of reading a particular poem or section of a work to use or apply elsewhere. The section on "Theory in the Classroom" provides smart approaches to individual tales organized by theoretical model or methodology, making them adaptable for the imaginative teacher. These essays, as I have said, are various. They treat different tales from Chaucer's poem, and they come at them from different perspectives. There is something for everyone in here. That said, there is often not enough for any one reader. Given the number of variables in play: genre and /or popularity of tale; kind of class focus or educational institution; theoretical approach or methodological focus, it's hard to get traction in any one area. The center of our attention is continually a moving target. This movement is the volume's strength as well as its weakness.

Copyright (c) 2016 Elizabeth Scala

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