19.11.18 Goodmann (ed.), Approaches to Teaching Langland's Piers Plowman

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Mary Raschko

The Medieval Review 19.11.18

Goodmann, Thomas A., ed. Approaches to Teaching Langland’s Piers Plowman. Approaches to Teaching World Literature. New York, New York: Modern Language Association, 2019. pp. xiv, 266. ISBN: 978-1-60329-340-2 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Mary Raschko
Whitman College
raschkml@whitman.edu

The late-fourteenth-century Middle English poem Piers Plowman presents a spiritually ambitious, politically charged, and textually unstable account of a dreamer's search for Truth. Although the poem's varied subject matter and stylistics should appeal to a diverse range of readers, Piers Plowman appears far less frequently on course syllabi than contemporary works by Chaucer or even the Gawain-poet, in part due to the poem's perceived complexity and the relatively few instructional resources available for teaching it. Thomas Goodmann's volume ambitiously targets both problems, providing practical resources to help more instructors and students approach the poem while casting its difficulty as a primary reason for its inclusion in post-secondary literature courses of all levels.

With twenty-four different contributors, Approaches to Teaching Langland's Piers Plowman seems poised to offer richly varied resources, spanning a range of institutional and course settings as well as teaching philosophies and interpretive methods. Yet the inclusion of so many contributions also limits the depth and specificity of any given essay in a relatively short volume. Writing well about teaching--in ways that instructors will find inspiring, actionable, and intellectually sound--is no small challenge. While some of the volume's essays provide energizing and pragmatic insights that readers can readily integrate into college classrooms, others more modestly introduce readers to interpretive debates and leave the task of imagining related activities and assignments to the individual instructor. As I will clarify more in this review's conclusion, the book provides helpful foundations for teaching the poem, but it also leaves considerable work to be done by subsequent conferences and publications that address why and how students might read Piers Plowman.

Part One, "Materials," promises to be one of the book's most utilized features. In this section, Goodmann surveys different editions appropriate for varied teaching contexts, ranging from manuscript facsimiles to modern English translations and excerpts found in popular anthologies. He also recommends critical introductions to the poem appropriate for beginning and advanced undergraduates, as well as graduate students. A section surveying "Aids to Teaching and Advanced Study" points non-specialists to relevant dictionaries, journals, audio recordings, and digitized manuscripts as well as to introductory guides to manuscript study. While certainly relevant to teaching, a final section called "The Instructor's Library" could help enable those who work on other Middle English texts to participate in Piers Plowman scholarship as well, since it features a holistic overview of relevant monographs, essay collections, and primary sources.

The much lengthier Part Two, "Approaches," features contributors' essays organized into thematic subsections. Goodmann pairs his own introductory chapter, which argues that "neither instructors nor students need a sense of mastery to read the poem" (31), with what he characterizes as a "reflective essay" from David Lawton. The latter looks at trends across fifty years of criticism, especially exploring tensions between formalist and historicist study. The essay then discusses Chaucer and Langland's attitudes toward the relationship of history and literature, potentially preparing readers to approach Piers Plowman in ways distinct from Chaucer's poetry and to use the poem to explore what literature can and should do. In the "Practices of Reading" section that follows, contributors often offer advice about the disposition instructors might assume or foster before the text, in addition to (or in lieu of) specific recommendations for classroom activities. C. David Benson, for example, advocates approaching Piers Plowman as an accessible text, not an exotic poem for a "small band of initiates who know the (Latin) password" (54). He presents a framing idea for a number of chapters when he encourages readers to regard the text's difficulties as a source of delight. In one of the volume's more theoretical chapters, William E. Rogers argues against lecturing on the poem, instead encouraging instructors to "be bothersome" by opening up questions that explore "Langland's quest for a viable hermeneutic" (70, 67). Ralph Hanna characterizes teaching as a performance that reconstructs "the act of reading itself" (46) and then gives a detailed account of how he facilitates study of Piers Plowman through the exploration of broad literary questions, such as "what would constitute an adequate explanation of a literary work?" (47). In this section, Ian Cornelius's essay stands out for its especially actionable advice on teaching versification. After describing a comparative exercise that features the prologues to Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, he provides examples of Langland's metrical patterns and outlines the process through which he helps students discover them.

In the next section, on "History and Historicism," Thomas A. Prendergast and Nicholas Watson both frame their teaching within the broader subject of secularity. Prendergast considers students' freedom to interpret religious texts literally on account of their faith and explains how he uses Piers Plowman to show that all texts require interpretation. Watson's essay advocates both for the value of studying religion, especially in conversation with modern secularity, and of examining "pastness" in a way that affirms the complexity of the past and its latent presence now. Concentrating on the figure of Hunger and the act of begging, he suggests students consider how (medieval) religious and (modern) secular societies approach indigence differently. Madonna J. Hettinger's and Gina Brandolino's essays have narrower scopes but, in their particularity, seem ripe for readers to adopt or adapt their strategies. Hettinger vividly connects past and present in an undergraduate medieval history course, using Langland's personification of Hunger to explore how food structures work and social order. The chapter includes medieval and modern statistics that enable students to discuss food insecurity in detailed ways. Brandolino's "Super(Plow)man" provides an overview of a lesson plan that helps students see the character Piers as more than just a religious figure. Again connecting past and present, students examine two letters associated with the 1381 Rising that mention Piers the Plowman, in tandem with 1940s comic book covers that portray Superman playing a role in World War II. Discussion of how a fictional character may "leave the bounds of their narratives and becoming involved in current events" reveals both what Piers does for the rebels' letters as well as what the letters do for the poem (99).

In "Piers Plowman in Literary Dialogue," essays bring the poem into conversation with works by Dante, Chaucer, and Spenser. Lawrence Warner focuses on three points of intersection between Dante and Langland's poetry: the poems' authorial protagonists, the role of the emperor Trajan, and the poets' use of Latin in a mostly vernacular text. In an essay on teaching Chaucer and Langland's prologues, Lawrence M. Clopper gives a thorough introduction to the three estates model. His account of how each prologue represents it includes a few charts readers could reconstruct or employ in class. In "Langland and Allegory," Judith H. Anderson recommends three books on allegory (one classical and two modern) and then explains how instructors might use Langland's Seven Deadly Sins, alongside a figure like Sansjoy from Spenser's Faerie Queene, to teach "allegorical process" and "allegorical projection" (129). Unlike these essays that bring the poem into conversation with another primary text, Sarah A. Kelen's "The Early Modern Plowman in the Classroom" focuses on Piers Plowman's post-medieval reception. Organized around two different classroom settings (an early British literature survey and an early modern literature seminar), the essay shows how studying readership and editorial practice--for example via Robert Crowley's editions--can help students explore early modern and contemporary literary cultures as well as canon formation.

In "Tropes and Topics," contributors describe how they guide students in tracing a given subject across one or more versions of the poem. Stephanie Trigg explores Langland's anxiety about poetry and the role of the poet, especially over "potential affinities between his own poetry and the idle tales, jests, and fantasies of popular entertainment" (133). Emily Steiner's essay on community provides a useful collection of key questions and recommendations for accompanying texts that prompt students to compare modern and medieval ethical thought. Her consideration of how Langland connects humans and animals in B.14 may productively stretch instructors to pursue the subject of community beyond the human. Elizabeth Robertson's essay on gender maps out a course of study focused on gendered personification in the poem's first seven passus, Will's interactions with gendered personifications in the middle, and feminine principles (especially the four daughters of God) near the poem's end. Finally, Goodmann presents an especially pragmatic chapter that explores translation as a subject of the poem. It outlines a series of assignments, including comparison of two modern translations with one Middle English version and an exercise brainstorming what modern figures to put in the field of folk, through which students discover and engage in the interpretive work of translation.

"Curricular Contexts" is an especially varied section that includes some of the least conventional approaches to teaching the poem. Mary Clemente Davlin's essay ranges widely but devotes some sustained attention to teaching adult learners outside of an academic context. It is also the only essay that discusses online teaching. Richard K. Emmerson addresses teaching the poem within interdisciplinary courses: he describes the poem's role in courses on the book of Revelation, Medieval London, and Monasticism and the Arts and reflects on the challenge of not reducing the poem to an example of a given course theme. Both Andrew Galloway and Kate Crassons's contributions have a fittingly Langlandian emphasis on learning as doing. Galloway discusses a course that included a performative, public reading of B.18 and especially highlights the interpretive or theological puzzles that the performance required students to examine. Crassons describes a course on medieval poverty that combines reading Piers Plowman with service learning. Students' work in a neighboring soup kitchen or an after-school program, Crassons suggests, helped them see more within the poem, while the poem helped them perceive the complex dynamics surrounding poverty in their community.

While most essays refer to the B version of Langland's continually-revised poem, a short closing section valuably advocates for teaching the A or C texts. Míċeál Vaughan, who has edited Piers Plowman A, argues for its appeal independent of the other versions, on account of its coherence and sociopolitical emphasis. This shortest version also productively engages students in exploring literary endings and continuations, which Vaughan connects to digital textuality and film sequels. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton argues for teaching the C text on account of its accessibility and clarity as well as its relative finality. She divides the essay into two sections on how she teaches C and why: although the latter part presents a "literary argument for teaching C" (217), it also includes actionable advice about using points of revision to teach the text.

Finally, two appendices may aid students in navigating Langland's Middle English (via a brief introduction to language in the C text) and his references to figures and structures within the late medieval church. A table listing orders of regular clergy and friars, as well as positions within the secular hierarchy, looks quite useful for students but provides no indication of how women participated in the church. While a short paragraph in the larger essay clarifies that nunneries were attached to male orders, the near absence of women in this section seems like a missed opportunity to connect Piers Plowman with scholarly interest in women's spirituality and student interest in gender politics.

With such varied contributions, Approaches to Teaching Langland's Piers Plowman fills a distinct need in the field: it will surely provide new ideas for those who regularly teach the poem and should enable a wider body of instructors to include it in their courses. Despite these virtues, as the end of the previous paragraph suggests, the volume could be more ambitious in its articulation of why instructors should teach Piers Plowman or how its inclusion can enliven the wider study of Middle English literature. Langland plays with literary forms, directly engages controversies of his day, and continually revises his text. Likewise, his poem can challenge us as instructors to break away from conventional forms of teaching, to connect our reading with the paradoxes and injustices of the modern world, and to regard our teaching practices as continual works-in-progress. While select essays admirably encourage and enable such creative teaching, the book comes across as largely traditional, geared toward integrating Langland into courses that feature a fairly narrow canon of medieval literature--one that contributors largely assume students willingly study and institutions consistently value. Additionally, the volume replicates some structures that limit our field and may make the poem appear inaccessible or unappealing to many readers. It is frontloaded with essays by men, and no contributions are authored by scholars of color. Very few essays explore how to interest secular or non-Christian students in the beliefs and structures of late medieval Christianity or the role Piers Plowman could play in courses that explore a more global Middle Ages. While certainly not unique to this volume, these shortcomings issue a challenge to all of us who love teaching and studying Piers Plowman to create a more inclusive scholarly community and to more energetically inquire into how the poem matters for readers of all backgrounds.

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