Brit Lit I: What I am doing in my class

from an email conversation with my chair

Usually in 221 I finish with Jonathan Swift, but I wanted to develop the background the students needed to see the development of literature across historical periods, so we have spent a long time on the Old English period– reading multiple works and examining them for similarities and differences, reading multiple adaptations and variations.

So, we’ve read 5 translations of one Exeter riddle, for example, to look at difficulties with translation. We read The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, and The Dream of the Rood. These are all shorter Old English works– the first three about being alone and how that was a problem in the culture, lots of pathos– and the first two involving a cultural change from pagan to Christian within the poems themselves, and the fourth about how the story of Jesus and the Cross was translated across cultures to make sense to an Anglo-Saxon warrior culture.

We used that last idea (and the conceptual elements from Daniel Pink) to attend a Summit presentation and look at how the gospel is being translated to the modern generation, looking specifically at/for design, narrative, play, meaning, big picture (what Pink calls symphony), and innovation (not from Pink).

We also read a translation of Beowulf and a graphic novel of Beowulf and looked at how the graphic novel portrayed the poem and how it agreed with/contradicted our reading of the poem and even its own reading of the story.

Then we read the Vulgate version of the Book of Judith, a deutero-canonical story very famous in English literature, and the Old English poetry fragment that is an adaptation of the story and is in the same manuscript as Beowulf. Students had to compare and contrast the biblical version and the OE poetry version AND discuss the significance of the differences, drawing on their other readings in Old English literature. This was the culminating assignment for the Old English section.

We did not read AElfric’s homily or the Middle English poetic rendition of Judith.

Now we are in the Middle English section and are reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Everyman, and sections of the Canterbury Tales. In this portion of the course we are looking at the transmission of the values of chivalric virtue as opposed to the warrior values of the Old English period and are comparing/contrasting modern views of romance and chivalry with their original meanings within medieval literature. We are also looking at/discussing the individual nature of approaching death and how that is or can be a community experience– looking at Sir Gawain and his expectations, Everyman and his experience, and Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” combined with scenes from The Bucket List. The third thing we are focusing on in this section is the Christian values/theology taught/emphasized in the works, including the concepts of pilgrimage and works salvation.

We are also looking at epic poetry and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth across the early time periods. So we examined Beowulf and Judith for elements of the monomyth and epic poetry and we are looking at/going to be examining Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Canterbury Tales for the same things.

Then we get to the Renaissance period and we look at romance there, mostly through love poetry, but also through Shakespeare’s presentation of love in The Tempest. We compare/contrast to the medieval romances AND to modern music lyrics about love. We are also looking at how the focus in literature has reverted from the next life to this one and what values are being supported within the literature.

We are reading The Tempest, with original Shakespearean text, but in the form of a graphic novel, and the students will have the opportunity to watch the play at my house.

We are doing poetry by Shakespeare (and Donne, Raleigh, and Marlowe), but this semester that is as far as I ended up getting. The first semester I taught the course we went further, but the course was very rushed. I expected a lot more preparation than the students had. So this semester I slowed it down considerably, but had students do more in-depth work.

I had thought about adding Milton this semester, which is obviously late 1600s, but if I have time, I think I will add Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

The students are creating a music playlist for a single character or scene in the works we have read. They are also creating a digital presentation over that character or scene using the playlist.

This approach helps the students understand the cultural differences in the different time periods and gives them various works in which to view and review the concepts/ideas.

I like this approach and the students seem to enjoy it overall.

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